A day with Vincent – Paris 2013

I went to see Vincent.

Van Gogh.

What I knew about Vincent van Gogh you could write on the back of a very small canvas. In fact, the corner of a very small canvas. The obvious things came to mind, the ear he cut off, the madness, the suicide and early death, the almost seemingly child-like paintings and the millions they fetch when sold, which rarely happens as seemingly so many are in museums or in the hands of private collections and will never see the light of day; and of course the song, “Vincent”, also known as “Starry Starry Night”, written and composed and sung by Don Maclean.

I don’t know what attracted me to go to there, I am someone who could stand in front of a painting for hours and not understand what it is about or why it is so revered. If someone can explain to me in plain simple language why it stands up amongst the good and the great then yes, I can grasp what the artist is trying to say. Perhaps I went because of the man. Vincent’s fame and infamy, his sadness, his loneliness and the painfulness with which he lived his life. None of us are immune to these feelings, try as we might to ignore them and I suppose that perhaps rather like going to Germany or Poland, it would seem remiss not to visit a former Concentration camp in a need to know and understand the depths of what humans can do and similarly to be so close to Vincent’s last home and not go there would seem to be a chance gone begging and I owed it to Vincent to try and see what he saw and feel what he felt.

I walked through the hustle of Gare du Nord, dodging the commuters and the bags on wheels and the young guy discretely offering me ‘Metro’ tickets whom I gently fended of with another ‘Non, merci’ and looked for the ‘Transilien’ train signs but after five minutes searching and checking and moving up and down stairways and escalators, I gave up and like a typical man, (sometimes) I admitted defeat and asked someone with common sense for help; a woman.

The young lady at the information counter understood me perfectly, saw my predicament, took pity and even smiled to make me feel better in my stupidity and explained how to get there and issued a ticket, which was remarkably cheap I thought. So now to the platform, but there are so many ‘escape’ routes out of here and the signs I wanted to look at were the other side of the ticket barriers, so where and how?

I’d been in Paris for over a week now and whilst I had seen much, I was getting tired. Lack of proper sleep and the thrill of being in this City had all caught up with me a little and I think I was due for a day off. But today wasn’t that day so I would suffer the confusion of my head for today and flee the nest for a while. Get out into the country and seek some peace and solitude and simplicity. Asking again for help a ‘Station operative’ directed me through a barrier and downstairs to a huge platform area and there were the signs I needed and the train was due in about twenty minutes. As I stood waiting, armed army guys took up their posts around the front of the train and you know how it is, you try not to look them in the eye, another guilt thing going on; guy on his own, carrying a bag, looking confused, hot and sweaty, tired. Ha! How stupid, as if they would be after me. I had read that trains to Pontoise had had their problems in the past and so maybe this was just a standard precaution to put anyone off either coming or going who was likely to cause trouble. Maybe it was an alert. Who knew, its not the sort of thing you do to go up to a mean looking guy with a lethal weapon in his hand and say, “Hey dude, what’s with the peashooter?”

Sure enough the train set off on time and we rumbled across Paris to Pontoise where I got off, hopped over the passenger bridge and onto another train waiting which would take me to the small village of Auvers-sur-Oise. The train to Pontoise was about one tenth full and sometimes when a youngish guy got on at the various stops along the way, they would stand and look down the train before selecting a seat as if being careful about who may be on and where they best be to see anything that may occur. Maybe it was my imagination, but I was aware that as we pass through the northern outskirts of Paris there were rules and laws that were in existence, ones I could not see, but which to guys like these were only too real and they had to be aware of. We stopped at many little suburban places, the train line cutting very close to houses and roads and I wondered whether the houses had moved to the line or the line to the houses. I get the feeling that the French sorted their transport systems out many years ago and just built through where they needed to go, unlike our system which shrank and avoided or ignored the little places that we would like to visit without resorting to cars.

It was a train ride unlike the others I had taken so far, the RER and Metro were brilliant, but hot, sweaty, noisy, swaying and bumpy and that was just me. Efficient yes, but you could get to feel like a little soldier in an army of strangers. It was a quiet journey, rolling along, stopping, a few on, a few off, the passengers getting fewer and fewer as we neared Pontoise.

The further we drew away from Paris the quieter the world became, the bigger the skies seemed to become, more open, more rural as the countryside reclaimed my mindset and minds eye and yet the clouds seemed to bundle up as if trying in the summer heat to at least attempt to recreate the dark brooding atmosphere of some of Vincent’s last paintings.

It was the gentle slowness of the trains to, especially after the changeover at Pontoise, when we almost seemed to free-wheel to Auxers-sur-Oise. Maybe we were going downhill, the driver giving us a few revolutions and then putting the gears into neutral and we coates there. It was as if this place deserved silence and respect and we must creep in, tip-toe and not disturb the frailness of the history that lay here, Vincent’s frailness and all the other artists who sought solitude and silence here the tran pulling up at the platform and going…ssshhh…hushhhh.

I alighted the train and walked into the town centre and found the signs for the Tourist Centre which is an old almost tumble-down building with a yellow crumbly sort of exterior and a creaky interior, in which a kindly lady gave me a town map in English for which she charged 1 Euro as opposed to the standard French one which was free. She thanked me for my visit and I wandered down to the “Auberge Ravoux” hotel / restaurant / museum where Vincent spent the last 70 days of his life and where in a burst of creativity painted 80 paintings.

At the back of the Auberge is a very tiny office where a lady charged me six Euros to visit Vincent’s room, gave me a ticket, pinned it to a small pamphlet about Auberge and then I walked alongside the restaurant which has been restored to its former self and looks beautifully old fashioned and which serves very fine regional meals I understand, the man in charge, Dominique-Charles Janssens having set up this place as a testament to Vincent and his work here and which has become quite famous. I had not booked a meal here, though next time I believe I would and so after admiring three ‘tree’ or ‘bushes’ made out of various coloured wine bottles inverted, like three small Christmas trees, I moved along and up some creaky stairs to a door on which I knocked and waited.

A very tall attractive young lady appeared, I handed her my ticket which she inspected, tore it off the pamphlet and invited me inside the upstairs of the former hotel. We were alone. She led me into a small room which turned out to be fitted out like a library, full of books and artefacts and postcards about Vincent and the town and such. Here the young lady politely asked me whether I would like her introduction in English or French and then proceeded to tell me a little history of Vincent and the Auberge which was short and to the point and which at one point she mentioned that Vincent was not allowed to paint in the room he rented here.

Really? I said, a little surprised.

Of course”, she said, surprised at my reaction.

Well, yes” I finally thought and agreed, “I suppose you wouldn’t want someone like Vincent painting in your room”.

No”, she said.

Paint all over the place”, I gestured with wild arms, at which she laughed.

She then said she was going to let me through to the landing on which was Vincent’s room, restored to as it was when Vincent was alive, but without any furniture, the room having been closed off after his suicide and death and left untouched for years. I asked if it was permissible to take photographs but she said sorry no. Oh I thought, that’s a shame. She opened the door, let me through and as I walked onto the old creaky landing I noticed that the young lady had closed the door behind me, but she was still the other side of it.

I was on my own here, I had not expected that, I had assumed she would accompany me. It was so quiet, like a reverential church, an extremely small sacred place of worship, private and for you to contemplate on what you were about to see. I virtually tip-tied across the landing and the small door in front of me was partially open and just to the left was a tiny chair, a replica of the one in Vincent’s painting simply called ‘The Chair’. Simplicity.

I cautiously entered the room. I say a room, it was a small oblong space, an attic room, no more than 8 feet by 9 feet with a roof that sloped, cutting down head space and no window, except for an opening light onto the sky and the clouds and there was a kind of cupboard built into the wall on the left and bareness, lots of bareness and plaster and floorboards and the chair, a small chair in a small room in a small house in this tiny village. This small simple now hallowed hall was the centre of Vincent’s universe or maybe his retreat from it. He paid 3 francs 50 centimes a day for this and a meal. 3 francs 50 centimes; about half a Euro, 40 pence, less than a dollar. It was all he could afford. Now, he could buy half the Louvre and the French would probably give him the other half.

As I stood there I was aware that this is where he lived for those last few months, probably leaning his paintings against that wall over there, or hanging them alongside his few clothes on the nails still protruding from the wall over there, ate a meal here, drank her, maybe got drunk here, sinking the absinthe that perhaps opened up his mind and heart to what he saw around him but which only emphasised his frail condition, both bodily and mentally. Maybe he sat and thought and day-dreamed and had his nightmares here too on the creaky hard sprung bed that maybe took up a third or more of the room, keeping his artistic materials in the cupboard over there, the brushes and palettes and the oils that he brushed and daubed and almost plastered on to his canvasses with, well, was it violence or anger or love and sadly, at one stage eating them, the oils I mean. Yes I know, his state of mind as it was drove him to do this, oil on the canvas and oil inside the man and sometimes that’s how it just is, the world I mean, sometimes the pain of our reality drives us to do things we would not normally contemplate, though I imagine we all have our own moments of madness, then look back and wonder why, was that me, did I do that and it seems like someone else did those things.

Maybe the depth of the paint Vincent applied reflected the depth of his feelings. We attach names and feelings to what we see and experience and we claim that’s how the world is, that’s reality, when in fact it’s just that that is how we perceive it to be, the reality we think we see is just our own reality, flitered through our senses. Actually the world just is and we interpret it through our own minds and the way Vincent saw it was often bright and with astounding colour but then with a brooding darkness and loneliness too. We literally dream the world we want to live in. We all imagine our own truth about the world and no one person hols the whole truth and this was Vincents truth. Vincent started out drawing, black and white, sketches, moved on to watercolours and thence to oils with all the startling brilliance that seems not to be realistic but as he said himself;

“Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I see before me, I make more arbitrary use of colour to express myself more forcefully.”

Van Gogh started to imitate Gauguin’s technique of painting from memory during this time which resulted in his paintings becoming more attractive and less realistic. Van Gogh’s emerging style saw him emotionally reacting to subjects through his use of colour and brush work. He deliberately used colours to capture mood, rather than using colours realistically. No other artist was doing so at this time.”

It truly was painting from the heart, building on the techniques he learned in his head.

Perhaps when those two conjoin, the heart and the head, when you get this perfect / imperfect union is when you find your soul, your true self and maybe in those final few months of Vincent’s life, that’s what he found, his love, his soul, his truth.

I stood here in an empty room, save for one humble chair and its a room, like many old rooms anywhere in the world, though this one was locked up and left untouched for years due to Vincent’s suicide and death occurring here, suicide being a more even heinous ‘crime’ then than now and so it’s a small miracle that this place exists at all. In fact Vincent lived in 34 places during his short life but I read that this is the only one in the world that you can visit. You cannot get any closer to his life, his inspiration and his demise than this.

I moved into the adjoining room which is just as small and at the time was occupied by a young artist, Anton Hirschig. This room has been fitted with some furniture and fittings, bed, table etc., to recreate the look and feel of that room and Vincent’s too. Though I am sure they were as human as any of us and would have preferred the good life and at least a little luxury, somehow the fact that these artists did live in what was virtually poverty rings true in as much as they did live and die for their art.

Vincent never lived to see himself in the arms of a little comfort and security but he did dream that ; Some day or another, I believe I will find a way to have my own exhibition in a café.

Well the dream is almost complete, in that on one wall is a place reserved for a painting, a painting by Vincent that would reflect his time here. How long this will take, I guess no one knows, perhaps it will take a kind and generous benefactor to donate one and this would then be the smallest and most precious museum in the world.

I moved into a third room, larger than the previous two, where there is a huge relaxing section of seating facing a cinema screen and a wonderful short film then shows detailing Vincent’s life with shots of Auvers back then in his day and accompanied by some very moving music. Its hard not to be affected by this, even if you knew nothing about him you cannot fail to come out of this very humbled and to have experienced a better understanding of Vincent and a warm feeling for a man who suffered all his life but used his suffering to try to show the world the beauty in it and the darkness too and that both are necessary for us, indeed are a part of us.

I came out of the screening and spent some time in the bookshop, bought some postcards and a small notebook with a Van Gogh painting as a cover for a gift, said thank you and goodbye to the young lady and strolled past the restaurant wishing I had booked a place. The food sounds wonderful and a group seemed to be gathering for a visit and a meal. Next time, next time!

I took a long slow stroll up the hill past the church Vincent painted, which is interesting as you can get in your eye-line the church and the painting he did at the same time.

Farther on and I imagine the village has changed to some degree over 100 years, but essentially its the same and its quite beautiful. I understand the residents are very proud of its associations with Vincent and the other artists who lived here, but it is done with taste and no flashiness, subtle and modest, very humble and I imagine they keep it in a manner fitting to Vincent and its history.

After a ten to fifteen minute slow trail rising uphill going out of the village, the cemetery came upon me and although I had come here to see the two brothers, I could not help but have a wander around and take photos of this place and even some close ups of just a couple of graves that struck me. One of an artist whose resting place was so colourful and the other of a young man who had gone way too soon and whose grave was so sombre, such a contrast. Perhaps because the artist seemed to have lived a long full life and the young man had barely got going, cut short for some reason.

Vincent’s grave is alongside his brothers, Theo died barely six months after him and though his manner and cause of death seems to be known, I read that Vincent’s death affected him very badly and as much as the human body fights very hard against death, if the heart is not willing to go on perhaps his resistance was low and he slipped away to join him as they will forever be joined, bound as they are by ivy, which came from a cutting supplied by Dr Gachet, who was a good friend and doctor to Vincent in his short stay at Auvers.

I trod back towards the wheat-fields that surround the village and cemetery, the sky’s opening and closing and the path here leads to a junction where four fields seem to meet and there is another reproduction painting of Vincent on display and where I guess he sat and studied and then either painted there, or as I understand, he preferred to paint from memory. Today the wheat was gone, cut short for harvest and the crows were not flying, but sat around cawing, as if laughing at us, but when the clouds rolled over as they did, you could get a sense of the loneliness and solitariness of Vincent, which perhaps he understood and needed and yet perhaps he sometimes regretted and though he never had children he regarded his art as his babies.

I was accompanied by three middle aged ladies who were behind me as I walked towards this spot and of course its a field and there is a two wheel track that tractors and such run along, so where its wet it gets a little muddy. So I walk and see the muddy bit, but wearing good size walking shoes I go ahead without thinking.

Plop!…plop!

The mud was deeper than I thought and so I am standing there, slightly rooted to the spot, the mud creeping up my shoes towards my laces and I turn around and see the ladies following and so I shout out “Look out, watch it!”

They see my predicament, or one does and she shouts to the others,

Attentione…attentione!!”

They swerve and miss the mud and smile at me for the warning.

The mud clings and stays there, I don’t brush it off and in fact I forget about it, but it follows me home later.

I followed the path down to the village, retracing my steps, diverted past the ‘Absinthe’ museum and was tempted to visit, but I thought if I saw everything in one day, I would have no surprises next time, and besides, I was hungry!

I strolled up the main street of the village, which was sort of back to reality time. I knew this as a cyclist came towards me in full racing gear and motoring along on a proper bike (the pedalling variety). As he went past I heard a shout,

Attenzione!!…attenzione!!

A car had pulled out in front of him and somehow he had managed to avoid it. The car just seemed to carry on, slowly and the cyclist tried to resume his speed again. It was almost like a comedy, except it could have been nasty, but it made me chuckle to see the scene, it seemed very French and very French village like. If you replaced the car with a man on a horse and the super speed cyclist with an old bike being ridden by a not so sober man, worse for wear for a little wine inside him and cursing the horse, the horse braying, the rider waving a fist, this was just an updated speeded up version.

Life doesn’t change too much does it?

So back to normal then, out of the time tunnel and back to the 2000’s from the 1890’s.

I walk past a shop/restaurant where I could have sat, had a beer and ordered crepes and I was tempted, but I moved on. Maybe something Vincent’s had said and which I remembered from the screening at the Auberge Ravoux had stuck with me.

I walked to the boulangerie I had noticed when I came into the village. I had seen the cakes!

I go in, there is a old gent asking for and being given his daily bread, but I would not know whether the pretty girl serving was forgiving his trespasses as well. I had noticed a pear flan behind the glass counter, but when I looked again, it had gone. But the young lady walked to the counter at the back and it was there, at least the last slice was. So that, and, due to my ‘I have a thing about lemons’ obsession, I asked for tarte lemon as well and to wash it down a cold can of Kronenburg. An odd mixture really. I paid, I thanked her, I left.

I wandered down towards the railway station, found a seat by the road opposite a restaurant, closed I think and started on the pear flan, which was delicious, the pears firm but soft and the pastry crumbly but crisp. As for the lemon tart, well that was tangy and almost like a drink, the filling just so smooth and the pastry delicate. I downed the beer and sat there fully satisfied and Vincent words came back to me.

How difficult it is to be simple”.

Perfect, I thought. How right he was. For all the complex, interwoven, sophisticated lives that we lead, sometimes the simple things in life are the most precious and the most difficult.

I met a father and son on the station platform and asked for the direction home regarding trains and he said well the next one isn’t going to Pontoise, but its in the right direction and we are going to Gare du Nord, so follow us. The train duly arrived, made a few stops, we got off and the next train we got on was Paris bound. It turned out they had both been on a pilgrimage to Vincent as well, the father in particular had visited probably most places regarding Van Gogh it was possible to go to.

Back at Gare du Nord I walked back to the hostel, sat at the bar, ordered my customary 1664 pint and chatted to the girls about my day. After an hour I moved to a table and stool about 3 yards from the bar, there is a menu there, so I intend to order food. I order and eat and as I am eating I notice a young guy who works there approaching the stool I sat on at the bar with a long handled dustpan and brush. He’s about to sweep up. But what?

Where I sat and had moved my feet about was mud. But dried mud, orange-brown dried mud that had dropped on the floor and had turned to dust. Orange brown mud that had dropped on the floor that had come from Vincent’s field, the wheat-field, where he had trodden.

The guy, I think, gave me a slightly displeased look, as if I should have wiped my feet before coming in, or changed my shoes at least. To tell the truth I never thought and never realised or I would.

But then, if he only knew and perhaps if I could have explained and he perhaps could have cared to listen, he would have understood that this wasn’t just any old mud.

I would have said that this was just me following in Vincent’s footsteps and just keeping his memory alive a little, spreading his landscape literally far and wide.

Maybe Vincent would have liked that.

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The City and The Star – Paris 2013 – The quest.

The word “courage” comes from the French word “coeur”, which means “heart.” True power proceeds not from force, but from love.”

 So today was the day. Pere Lachaise Cemetery.

Where to begin? With something like 70 000 graves here, where do you walk, what do you photograph, what do you think and feel and discover about life, death and yourself? For some it’s a gentle stroll in quiet place, a lunch-break meditation, time to rethink their loves and lives, what’s gained and what’s lost and what is, a chance to live and relive regrets and memories and smile a little, laugh a little, cry a little.

For me it was a quest. I was here for a reason.

 It was no use just wandering. Wandering is fine, but within a structure is best. Like a film, it ought to, has to have acts and an inciting incident, an arc, a midpoint, a resolution and an ending and all the other foundations that make a great film. The great screenwriter William Goldman ( ‘Butch Cassidy’, ‘Princess Bride’, ‘Marathon Man’, ‘All the Presidents Men’) said, “Screenplay is structure”, but then he also famously said “Nobody knows anything” (about the film business). Well the endings were already here, or so I thought. Once you know you are on a route then you can divert when something interests you and thence go back to the route, nothing wrong with going off the path for a while, but come back to the path if its a good one. So a while back I copied Rick Steves recommended Cemetery Tour and I would follow that and see where it led.

 I had no idea where I would find the ending. I had seen a photograph that was a few years old and thought, naively, that I may just drop on this from the photo, by chance, luck or circumstance. I should have known better that there was a small lesson to learn and she would teach me that you cannot depend on such things alone, you can trust to them sometimes but you better have a plan, a structure or at least a direction, one that is true to yourself. Well I wanted to be true to myself by being true to her.

 I took the Metro from Gare du Nord across to station “Gambetta”, which leads to the entrance of ‘Porte Gambetta’. I was tired and as I rose out of the Metro station like the dead rising from underground, I had to use the ‘Non merci’ again when a young guy approached me as I walked past a bank with a cash machine close by, as if thinking I was going to withdraw money I guess. No threat just a gesture. I thought he was following me, so I stopped and turned and he went by and then I continued. The entrance to Pere LaChaise here is down a quiet side of the Cemetery and there is a florist opposite the gates. I thought about buying flowers, but in the heat I wondered how long they would last.

I was tired. A few days of little sleep in the hostel heat was wearing a little on the soul, but this was one connection that would be made one way or the other. There was a red thread waiting to be tugged, wound in a little. Just inside the cemetery there was a superintendents ‘hut’ (stone/brick built) where you can pick up a map (2 of) of the Cemetery and on it is listed with their situation, the many graves of the famous and infamous. But with my ‘tour guide’ and no map, I thought that following the ‘road/street’ signs would be favourable and if I got lost, so be it.

 I was thirsty. Every day I would ask the girls at the hostel to replenish my 2 litre bottle with ice cold water and I needed it now. I sat down on a kerbside and noticed a young couple leaning on a tombstone nearby. Well, I thought, that’s not right. Sure enough a lady ‘superintendent’ appeared and asked in a respectful but firm manner for them to please not use the tombs as resting places. I got up to, although she did not address me personally, but I felt obliged. Of course once out in the forest of the fallen you could sneak a lean or a sit here and there, but wo betide if they catch you! As it should be I suppose. I mean you may be tired, understandably, but how do you think the residents feel? Actually I think they would be glad of the company. A little chat, a ‘hows it goin’ kind of thing would be welcome, a little lean they would perhaps relish. If I were there, you could lean on me, I wouldn’t mind.

 First stop was the Crematorium. A huge dome building surrounded by over 1300 small cubicles containing the ashes of many including Maria Callas. Her cubicle is downstairs, underground, but alas this was blocked off and reserved for family and as I walked around one or two people surfaced from here, obviously visiting and obviously moved and quiet having just spent time with someone.

 So my first stop was Oscar Wilde, 1854 – 1900.

 As he sipped champagne on his deathbed he said, “ Alas, I am dying beyond my means”.

 Wit, raconteur, writer and an activist for many rights, gay and otherwise, way before they were acceptable and he certainly had an adventurous life and suffered for it too, spending time in gaol. When I got to his tomb there was a small group of people gathered around a guy who was giving a guided tour and he stopped talking about Oscar to recite a poem of his whilst they listened, enraptured. Dead at 46, Oscar not the poet, but from what no one is sure, well cerebral meningitis, but what caused that? Arguments persist. But he died destitute in Paris, with an enormous body of wit and work left behind. A man ahead of his time no doubt and one who saw the light and the dark in life.

 …I wanted to eat of the fruit of all the trees in the garden of the world… And so, indeed, I went out, and so I lived. My only mistake was that I confined myself so exclusively to the trees of what seemed to me the sun-lit side of the garden, and shunned the other side for its shadow and its gloom.”

 Food for thought indeed, don’t we all want to experience that bit of devil inside, even though we may deny it. The Body of Light, but with its darkness too.

Moving on from dear Oscar, next up was Gertrude Stein, 1874 – 1946.

Perhaps an unfamiliar name to some, myself included until recently. Gertrude, after travelling through Europe, dropped out of Medical School and moved to Paris (a familiar theme, Paris drew many people from England and America who wanted to ‘free’ themselves from prohibition and the strictures of an increasingly industrially bound and structured life and who wanted to find themselves, eat good food, drink party and have lots of sex and mix with like minded people.) shared an apartment with her brother in Paris, then later with Alice B. Toklas, her partner.

 Every Saturday Paris’ finest artists and writers would gather for dinner at Gerts place and receive guidance and stimulating conversation and inspiration. Picasso painted her, his paintings lining her apartment walls (now worth millions), Hemingway sought her approval. She was a conduit, a catalyst I suppose, an inflammatory one, very opinionated and she fell out with Ernest. Most famous perhaps for the words,

 “A rose is a rose is a rose”;

 and quite right too. Not sure what she meant exactly, but I would take it as meaning that we are all meant to be what we are meant to be and we must find that out. That is our mission in life, find ourselves then pass it on, otherwise we are doing the world and ourselves a disservice.

 Steins last words on her death-bed, when asked the question, “What is the answer?”, were,

 “What is the question?”

 Cryptic or what?

 Gertrudes grave was OK, evidence of some flowers, but otherwise bare and you could miss it quite easily, a shame as she was a spark that lit many flames in Paris. It’s worth watching the Woody Allen film “Midnight in Paris” to catch a flavour of Gertrude and many others of this time.

 Moving on, I passed a number of tombs and memorials to the horrors of the second world war and the Holocaust and by God they are moving. I am not sure my photos do them justice, frankly they speak for themselves in the horrors they portray.

 At the Communards wall now and in 1871, 147 men (no women I think) were lined up against the wall here and shot for resisting the French government who were in accord with the invading Prussian army. They had held out against the Parisian troops and were hiding in Pere Lachaise cemetery. The French government actually fought heir own people and French soldiers shot them and buried them here in an open trench. They are a symbol of working class and the poor and of the left. It was yet another bloody time in French history. The French certainly stand up for themselves when they have too. Strikes, revolt,….they are street-fighting men and women when principles are at stake.

 After a while I found Edith Piaf, 1915 – 1963, ‘The Little Sparrow’. And there she lay. A child of the Parisian streets, raised in a bordello and then rose to fame as a symbol of struggle and her amazing emotive voice lifted many but she suffered through ill health, alcohol, and addiction to painkillers but then sang ‘no, je ne regrette rien’. Love affairs, broken hearts, you name it, she did it.

 Was there ever a singer or writer who lived a normal life? Steady, temperate and God fearing?

 I hope not! And if they existed, I doubt they are buried here!

 An interviewer once asked George Michael what he thought he had that most people did not, that made him a great songwriter. He thought and said, I don’t think I do have something extra, people like me have something missing and that’s what I’m trying to express, a gap that I am trying to fill, a void of some sort.

 I wander some more wishing I could talk to these people. What tales they would tell me. The sort of stuff that was never printed, never heard, never recorded and why they did what they did and whether they wished for anything different as so many of them died so relatively young. But then we are so fortunate in that the diseases that they suffered we now can cure and really it wasn’t so long ago and what with wars raging and the futility of what man can do, they perhaps thought you really do have to live every day and commit yourself to the cause. Being cosy wasn’t for these guys. Sure they must have had ego’s and wanted to make their mark and as Picasso said, The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away” and these people went at it helter skelter, driven by fear and doubts and that the days are numbered.

 Following winding paths and getting lost was fun, tracking and backtracking and then the next stop was Moliere, 1622 – 1675.

 Moliere was a great comic playwright and actor and in 1804 he was the first to be reburied in Pere Lachaise, which may have been some sort of publicity stunt to boost the new Cemetery’s input! I don’t know what the prices were then but now it is fairly expensive, but the price is the same in all Parisian cemeteries. The most expensive option is of course buying a plot in perpetuity: 5256.5€ for 1 square meter. If you only buy a plot for ten years (the minimum allowed), it will cost you 331€ for one square meter. To this must be added the cost of the monument. (Prices accurate as of 2010.)

 This guy had an ironic end to his life, here was a sick man whose doctors thought he was a hypochondriac – dying whilst playing a well man on stage who is a hypochondriac, then succumbing on-stage while the audience cheered, not realising he was actually in the throes of dying. (He was well loved for his wicked portrayals of the rich, the noble, priests and made many enemies doing so) He died shortly after saying,

 We die only once, and for such a long time”

 Next was a modern icon. I didn’t cotton on to this guy until the early 1980’s when another forthright man, Oliver Stone, brought his film out. Until then my only memories were a cover version of this guys groups best known song and a few other tunes that wafted over here to England before he wafted away himself. Jim Morrison, 1943 – 1971. Opinions are split on The Doors and Jim. Since the Oliver stone film and reading some stuff about them and him, particularity John Densmores ( drummer in the band) book, I came to realise Jim had a bit of a handle on life. He went all the way, excessive some may say, but he had that spirit that came from Greek myths, that life was short and painful but that we must endure the pain, its good for us, not to be afraid of it. It’s easy to see him as some drug riddled alcoholic with a few good tunes and some heavy lyrics, but he was no dummy, he saw through things, bullshit included, he wanted America to wake up to what was happening and not slip into a homogenized conveyor belt of consumption and terrible wars and conflict and not be ruled by governments and industry. He wanted people to think for themselves again. As Brendan Behan said, ‘the best way to serve the age is to betray it’. But he was a soft gentle guy too, shy even and at his first gigs he sang with his back to the audience. He had principles too, while he was off on a drinking spree, his buddies sold ‘Light my fire’ for a commercial on TV, behind his back. Returning, Jim was furious at their sell out and felt his wrath. Sure he got arrested for allegedly exposing himself, though Densmore suggests it was his finger he exposed, nothing more, taunting and teasing the audience saying have you come to see what I might do or really listen to what we are saying? I think he saw the gap between who he wanted to be and what the public wanted and he escaped to Paris to lose himself and get away from the authorities as they regarded him as dangerous and like Lennon and others, they were after him.

 Like Elvis only being filmed above the waist, Jim took things to another level, he was subversive and likely to lead the whole generation to hell…as if. But then all great artists are regarded like that to begin with, many of them buried here and who we now regard as visionaries and have moved the cause of the human race further ahead towards a better understanding of ourselves and then we all catch up with them later. We try to avoid that dark side of ourselves, push it away, hide from it and deny it. Well, seems its better to acknowledge it, recognise it and then you can use it, rather than it using you. Its the elephant in the room, ignore it at your peril. Like John Nash in ‘A Beautiful Mind’, he recognised his own schizophrenia, the voices and the people in his head, said hello, but then chose to ignore them. He controlled them, not them he.

 The Crystal Ship” – The Doors.

 Before you slip into unconsciousness

I’d like to have another kiss

Another flashing chance at bliss

Another kiss, another kiss

The days are bright and filled with pain
Enclose me in your gentle rain
The time you ran was too insane
We’ll meet again, we’ll meet again


Oh tell me where your freedom lies
The streets are fields that never die
Deliver me from reasons why
You’d rather cry, I’d rather fly

The crystal ship is being filled
A thousand girls, a thousand thrills
A million ways to spend your time
When we get back, I’ll drop a line

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_VN8JFPSmZs

The ‘crystal ship’ was The Doors, the band and this was off their first album. Off on the great journey and he would drop a line when he got back. But he never did get back, he just kept going.

His grave/tomb is nothing like it was, its pretty clean as you may see from the photographs. It’s actually hidden away a little and easily missed. Jim nearly never got buried here, the director of Pere LaChaise at first refusing the request until his friends mentioned he was a writer. ‘A writer?’, the director said and then found him a spot. And of friends Jim had this to say and I think he’s right, though its not easy to live up to I guess.

Friends can help each other. A true friend is someone who lets you have total freedom to be yourself – and especially to feel. Or, not feel. Whatever you happen to be feeling at the moment is fine with them. That’s what real love amounts to – letting a person be what he really is.”

There is a steady stream of people visiting Jim’s grave. Respectful and curious, wondering why he left so early, suspected drug overdose probably, seems he couldn’t or wouldn’t quit and his girlfriend Pamela Courson followed fairly soon after. Seems a drug of choice is de riguer for many, what Jim did wasn’t new, absinthe was what many drank to stimulate the mind in the years of “La Belle Epoque” and beyond. Perhaps life seems too scary for some whereas for most its death that we try to avoid.

Onwards and I pass a guy sat at the foot of a grave, backpack, tin of beer, maybe smoking something stronger and a faithful dog keeping him company. He was wailing a tune as he listened to his headphones, it was painful to be honest, and I had no idea who the grave belonged too and didn’t feel obliged to interrupt him to ask, but the guy was obviously in the throes of some sort of ritualistic ceremony so strong that he wanted his friend in there to know he was there thinking of him and missing him or her.

Frederic Chopin, 1810 – 1849 was next, a gentle artistic musical genius who kept famous company during his life and was swept up by George Sand the stormy female novelist with whom he had a passionate on/off love/hate affair until he contracted tuberculosis (another one, I said it was a big killer). She nursed him, then left him, then he died aged 39 and the music they played at his funeral was? Yup, ‘The Funeral March’ which he wrote. I suppose he would have liked that. His body is here, but his heart is within a Church column in Warsaw.

The dramatic story of Héloise, 1101 – 1164 and Abelard, 1079 – 1142 was next, these two being the oldest residents in the cemetery. Peter Abelard dared to question the church’s authority and wisdom, set up a university attracting the bright minds of Europe including one Héloise and sparks flew between them resulting in a baby at which the canon exploded and hired thugs went to his bedroom and castrated him. Disgraced, the two of them went to a monastery and convent respectively but kept in touch by post for 20 years and those letters survive to this day. When they died the two were buried together in her convent then moved to Pere Lachaise and the canopy tomb is made from stones taken from his and hers monastery and convent. A love story to rival Romeo and Juliet and a real one too.

The great poet wit and raconteur Alexander Pope wrote a poem about them which included the line ‘Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind’………………..so now you know.

Colette is next 1873 – 1954, she was Frances’ most honoured female writer, married three times and linked romantically to many women, became a music hall performer and famous for doing a ‘Janet Jackson’ and her novel ‘Gigi’ became a film starring Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier.

‘Tank evorns faw leetle gulls’.

Gioacchino Rossini (Italian…what else with a name like that?), 1792 – 1868. OK, what’s the definition of an intellectual? Answer; someone who can listen to the William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger. Which he wrote amongst many other pieces. He was prolific, he could knock out a 3 hour opera in weeks. He was quite a sensible genius, he wrote like a madman until he was 37, then never wrote an opera again, moved to Italy, had bad health, came back to Paris, got better, then died. His remains are in Florence, not here.

Baron Haussmann, 1809 – 1891 was next, he who reconstructed a huge amount of the Paris that we see today for better or for worse. He tore down much of the medieval streets as Napoleon did not want revolutionaries to use the small narrow streets to barricade themselves in. So if you like Paris, its him you must thank, if not, well you can tell him by shouting through the green door fronting his tomb.

And that was it. There were many other graves to visit, but it was hot and by now I had had enough and wanted to find one more before I flaked out. I wandered around myself for a while hoping to find her, but realised that I needed help otherwise I would be here all day. I walked back down to the office at Gambetta and sat down again. Whoops! A nice man said ‘Please sir can I ask you to stand?’ Of course I said sorry of course and ‘By the way do you parlo anglais?’ A little he said.

I asked him if he could locate a grave for me. It’s not a famous one, it won’t be on your list.

So he went to the office, got a map and came out. We stood by a van in which sat a man talking in to a woman standing next to it. The man I was with said the guy in the van was the expert. The woman was American and the guy next to me started to make fun of the Franco USA relationship and I completed the statement with a wise ass remark of my own which made him laugh and the USA lady too and just for a second there was a USA/Franco/UK accord.

So now the man says, who is it you want to find? Do you have a name?

I said I can do better than that, I have a book to show you.

I produced Samiras book. He looked and said,

Shes not dead!!”

I hope so, I say, they buried her in 2004.

Wait, wait he said, let me think.

He stood for a minute and from memory only, took a pen and drew around area 18, a small patch in the middle of the cemetery. I think you will find she is in there. She was a bit of a looker. Non?

Oui, I said, very much so. (though it wasn’t my first thought about Samira, she was pretty)

With that I took his maps, said thank you and shook his hand and set off to find my inspiration and maybe one day millions of other too. How remarkable he should remember 1 grave out of 70 000.

I retraced my steps up past the Crematorium turned left, then right, then angled left, climbing up hill, until I reached a big island where I had been before, So if I’ve been here before how come I missed her?

I venture up and down, through bushes and bracken, past old graves, new graves, overgrown graves. Still no luck. Samira you got me running around here, where are you? I stand on a path thinking, I’ve been down here before, but then decide hop off to the right, in between two closely laid rows of graves, with a narrow path separating them. No, no, no, then to my left, is that? Yes, there she is. I see why I missed her before. Her grave, unlike most peoples, does not face the path, it faces away and towards the large island and as we are high up on a bank here, she overlooks much, a good view I suppose you might say. Fitting she should see so clearly.

I am relieved to have found her, I would not have left Paris without doing so.

Samiras grave is tidy. There are flowers and always will be. They are white and artificial, but then she always flowers come rain or shine. Roses I think. A desert rose, maybe. There are plaques there too, and a beautiful photo of Samira, later on in her life, she died aged 31, wearing her ‘armour’, her sunglasses.

I take photos, although I read somewhere its frowned upon in some places in Paris cemeteries to do so, but it is tolerated here. I take close up shots , sideways shots, all sorts, I don’t want to forget this, its too important. Samira was a brave, resourceful woman who had a hell of a rough life but overcame it all only to die young trying to help others. Like many you may say, but she was particularly courageous as she took moral decisions that she did not have too, as hero’s do, and returned to her own community, the one that rejected her initially and she dedicated her life to teaching children a better way. But she simply ran out of time.

I realise I have not come prepared. Brought no flowers, nothing, but yet I wanted to leave something for her. Words. Thats what I would leave. Words. She wrote her book which broke the rules and which set her free and words are more powerful than anything. As Victor Hugo, great French writer, ( “Les Miserables”, buried in The Pantheon) once wrote,

On resiste a l’invasion des armees; on ne resiste pas a l’invasion des idees.”

 “One can resist the invasion of armies; one cannot resist the invasion of ideas.”

I took out her book, the original French paperback version. I tore off the back page and took out my pencil, writing on the back of it,

Un coeur blessé, une fois aimé, est un coeur sacré.”

A wounded heart, once loved, is a sacred heart.”

I place it on her grave where there is space and place two smallish stones on it. I don’t know how long it will last, how long the writing will stay legible for or whether someone will come along and remove it.

I sincerely hope that perhaps Samiras family will visit early September, as I feel they do on the anniversary of her death and maybe see those words and know someone cares for their daughter/sister, someone four hundred miles away, who just fell upon her story and thinks, hopes, that maybe one day someone will continue her story and amplify her life from book to screen and show women around the world, ‘her sisters in trouble’ as she said, that finding a way out is possible, difficult but possible. I hope so.

Some of Samiras last lines in her book read, “I am Samira. I am twenty-nine. I believe in life and I want to be happy. I have done what I needed to have a chance of succeeding’.

Whatever she had to endure Samira always had hope.

It was only then with the sun still shining on her that I shed a little tear for her; a brave, brave girl who deserved much more from life, but in the end gave far more than she received.

I left Samira and Pere LaChaise with lots of thoughts, but one thought and one feeling in particular.

I left with hope.

Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things and no good thing ever dies.”

Goodnight Samira, you maybe sleeping now, but you are more alive now than even you may realise.

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The City and the Star – Day 2.

Day two began with a shower and an empty stomach.

I heard voices mumble as they emerged like stricken caterpillars slithering from their cocoons and fluttering downstairs for breakfast. Breakfast is included in the price which consisted of coffee, fruit juice, cereal, cheese, ham, rolls, jam etc. etc. With my upgrade breakfast available I wasn’t bothered about eating any of this, though I had no idea still what it was. I emerged from my own shell at 9. 30. There were curtains drawn in some of the pods, sleeping off the nights celebrations which were audible to us on the third floor as the windows had to stay open due to the warmth and the humidity. Sleep was going to be hard to come by. I had assumed that already and allowed for it. There would be no early starts, just a lazy rise, a shower and a good breakfast and then a slow considered visit to wherever I fancied on that day.

Downstairs the place was buzzing, There was a queue of about 40 people snaking around the bar, moving at a snail’s pace as they collected their sustenance for the day. I took a seat at the bar unsure of the routine for the upgrade. A young lady called Sophia bounces over to take my card and smiles and announces that she will bring it to me shortly. I help myself to coffee and juice and start to look around the scene. Like the few other hostels I have stayed in I look around for somewhere to sit and chat. I don’t mind who it is, everyone is on their way to somewhere and has a story to tell. There is usually a mixture of age groups, families and single people. But I have a dawning awareness that this is not a hostel with that broad spectrum of visitors. Everyone appears to be under the age of twenty five, thirty maximum and there are small groups clustering around tables, sometimes a mixture of men and women, more often than not groups of young women travelling together. I begin to feel a little out of place, slightly uncomfortable that I am the oldest person here by a long long way. There’s no logical reason for me to feel this way, but I just think that I stick out like a sore thumb.

I laugh at myself and my stupidity and imagine the girls in my dorm waking up bleary eyed, looking over at me fast asleep, mouth open, tired and twitching and thinking, “My God, I’ve booked myself in a retirement home”. Then another thought struck me. I did not remember booking a dorm that was mixed with male and females, just male. But it’s not to be and it’s not difficult to be private, there’s a curtain across the bed to be private behind or you change in the toilets/shower rooms and everyone’s aware of the need not to stare. Often I would leave the room when girls returned to change and leave them to it. I was reminded at times of the old line I have used myself a few times in appropriate circumstances. I have perhaps been in a bedroom on holiday, getting changed, when a female voice, a friend or maybe a cleaner even, knocks on the door and pipes up,

“Are you decent?”

“Yes I am”, I say, “But can you give me five minutes?”.

I decide to keep a low profile and not be as social as perhaps I could be. I know that sounds odd, but I was just aware of behaving myself and not giving rise to thoughts that here’s a guy on the lookout for young female company. I was afraid of people thinking I was predatory. I wouldn’t be, but it was a perception I was aware of. I was here for 10 days and a certain behaviour was required. This is a real back-packers hostel, fast moving with young men and women travelling all over Europe and exploring during a year off or their summer break. I gravitate towards the staff, the young women working here, naturally, I think as they are here for the duration and so am I and they know Paris to some extent and there is a chance to get to know each other and hep to make my stay comfortable and interesting.

Breakfast arrives! Sophia, the shy and pleasant girl working the breakfast bar announces that this is the ‘resurrection breakfast’ and plonks down in front of me a full English cooked breakfast. Well if I’m to get this every day it will set me up royally. I don’t eat these normally, but I am sure I can make an exception for 10 days.

It’s beautiful and like all beautiful things, it’s admired, devoured and appreciated.

I finish it and say my goodbyes to the staff who wish me a good day and I head off to Gare du Nord. After hedging my bets crossing the road outside the hostel, sometimes waiting for the green light, sometimes challenging the traffic, I begin to think about her as I make my way into the train station. I remember she used to make her way down into Paris and get on and off trains to get home or to friends, sometimes grabbing a cheap meal here in the station, hanging about with the guys who stand and chat. She may have even walked the railway line here when she had no home or shelter to go to and just walked to keep warm, walking all night until the dawn arrived. Gare du Nord played a part in her life, good and bad and the Metro will take me closer to her former home and district today. If I could get to the actual streets where she roamed I would, but I don’t know how difficult or dangerous that would be. It may be foolish to go wandering in an area whose crime rate is disturbingly high in comparison to the worst in France. I could not blend in if I tried. Perhaps my fears are unfounded in as much I read that trouble tends to explode here rather than be on a continuous scale, but nevertheless there is an undercurrent of hardship, serious unemployment and a desire for the mostly immigrant population to survive somehow by any number of means and I really don’t know enough to poke my nose in and start asking questions. Perhaps if I stumbled across someone who I could talk to, maybe I would discretely ask, but perhaps I should just pay a visit to the Cathedral in Saint Denis and be happy with that.

The Metro line awaits and I need a ticket. There are information desks and ticket offices and there are stand-alone ticket machines dotted around the station floor. All the machines have a queue, but I’m not in a hurry I’m happy to stand in line. There are a couple of American ladies in front of me trying to figure out the baffling machine that confronts them and how to buy a return ticket each. They want two returns into Paris but cannot grasp how to get them. There is a ‘roller-bar’ which spins and moves a blue lit bar against various choices and which once you have made it you press the validate button and keep going until it prints a ticket and gives change. It’s like most things, when you know it’s easy, but two ladies just in from wherever with luggage and a head full of flying means the machine presents a serious threat to their well-being and forward travel.

A French guy helps out whilst I explain that maybe they should just buy a single at just 1Euro 70 each and two more to get back from their destination. 1Euro 70, I think, that’s very cheap compared to London at £4 50. Perhaps it’s subsidised. Whatever the truth is, even at this early stage the Metro service is quite brilliant and fairly easy to navigate with just a little thought. I buy my own ticket and find the correct entrance down into the bowels of Paris and within 3 minutes a train arrives. Thinking back I don’t think I remember waiting any more than three minutes for any Metro train all the time I was there.

I shuffle on, the doors close and I chose to stand. I don’t think I sat at any time during my stay. Often it was very busy and with so many women, children and older people getting on I had no need for a seat and I could keep my eyes on the Metro route board that ran across the top of the doors and the light that scooted along the stations as we moved down the track and I could then avoid missing my stop.

I usually stood by the central pole that had numerous flanges attached and held onto that and frankly you had to hang on. It was pretty bumpy, the carriages swaying as we cornered and rose and dipped and clanked to a halt at each station with the name of each one being announced by an automated voice machine in an interesting and alluring French manner. A few seconds before each stop a soft male or female voice releases a breath of air which seems to ask the question, “Chatelet?” and is giving you time to consider whether this is your stop and then when the train stops the same voice announces with a confirmation of its own question, “Chatelet” in a more downbeat manner, as if to say, yes that’s what I said, “Chatelet”.

As we moved away from Paris the carriages emptied gradually and then up popped St. Denis. I exit, climb the stairs and emerge into the sunlight. It’s midday now and it’s hot and humid. There is a row of shops and then the town square opens up with a small market today, mostly bric-a-brac, some food stalls and to the left illuminated in the blinding Sun, the medieval Basilica of Saint Denis. It’s having some major structural work done on the outside but its open and there is no charge at this stage to go in to the Cathedral. There are various portals lining the knave, each one dedicated to various themes, Papal visits and the refinery of the church and its rituals.

It’s a huge high vaulted cathedral that has its origins from 1000 years ago when St. Denis, who spoke out and preached against the ruling forces was beheaded in Montmartre and the legend states that his body carried his own head to St Denis where he chose to be buried. All but three of the French Kings and Queens from the 10th century until 1789 were buried here, though some were exhumed from elsewhere to be so, causing the church to become ‘The Necropolis of France’.

It’s fascinating to look at the history of France this way, not that I know much about it frankly. But the crypt which is ‘fenced off’ (for which there is a small charge to enter) contains ‘cadaver tombs’, bodies of those interred which are displayed in a sometimes, though not always, less than regal disposition and seemingly always life-size. They cover a huge area of the Cathedral and there are further tombs without the cadavers in the underground section which contains the graves of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, though how much of their actual body lies there cannot be ascertained as the headless bodies were covered in quicklime and dissolved with only some remains left, her garter perhaps, which were recovered at a later time and reburied along with other bones and such. Many tombs were opened and the bodies removed and thrown into mass pits and similarly covered in lime during the heady or should I say headless Revolution.

There are many names here which ring bells, Bourbons, Dauphin of France (8 year old son of Marie Antoinette and Louis), Medici and Louis after Louis after Louis. There are very few visitors, no queues, no hassle and very peaceful, except when a group of young excited schoolchildren came in and they were hush –hushed by their teacher/carer.

I left not so much educated on the history of France but more aware of the turmoil it went through and the way it has from time to time turned on those who were at the head of state and who very often lost theirs. The French people seem to tolerate much, but then will rise up and protest loudly to preserve something that is practical, philosophical and basic to their way of life. Looking around here you can see some of the roots of that anger and discourse and the readiness to challenge authority if need be and very direct action at that. We often moan when we hear French workers on strike at this or that and I just wonder whether their history tells them to stand up for themselves a lot more vehemently than us, the more passive English are prepared to do.

I exit the Cathedral and wander down the narrow main street with shops of all types on either side and this area is really multi-cultural with faces and body-shapes and clothes and expressions and speech of all types in evidence. A woman outside a shop had a ‘slush’ drinks machine which she is fighting with a large piece of wood or rather she is fighting a large group of wasps which seem to be enamoured with the fruity drinks.

I was tempted to stop and buy, but thought I would give it a miss but further down the street I found a guy whose stall was sting-free and sunk a mixed slush very quickly. It was hot now and I stood by a large map of St Denis wondering whether I should walk around the area and explore, but decided I wouldn’t have a clue where I was going and so abandoned that idea. I strolled back and passed by the lady fighting the wasps and guessed a score of 3 nil to the wasps was about fair and that she was wasting her time as the wasps had another substitutes waiting in the wings, so to speak.

That would be their ‘b’ team then.

I go into a shaded wooded area over by an Arts Centre where there are seats and it’s a chance to rest awhile and pass some time. There is a small standpipe in the middle of the area issuing very cold water at speed and volume and many are those that pass by and cup their hands and drink and splash their faces and necks. It’s not just me then that is feeling the heat its the seasoned locals too. A young boy and father of a kind of Arabic look sit close by and the son plays with the water and he gets the hang of the mechanism and manages to manipulate the water out of the tap for himself and others too. It’s funny how simple things are sometimes just enough and that’s a theme that would occur a few more times in Paris over the coming week or so.

I decide that my stay here is over although I am reluctant to leave in many ways. But it’s not as if this place is the other side of the planet. I can come back and with more confidence and purpose I can continue my search. I walk back to the Metro and I’m holding some Euro’s in my hand and I spot the ticket office as I do not see a machine, but as I work my way across to it, my hand slightly raised with the money in it, I cross the path of a North African looking woman who sees me and the money and stops in my way and gestures that she should have the money and not the ticket man.

“Non, merci”, I say.

I don’t know how to feel about her. I mean just to assume that I would give it to her smacks of some sort of desperation perhaps, an assumption maybe, a quite natural act for her that I would never see where I live but here its taken for granted. She wasn’t begging, just crossing my path, no scam, no threat, just a simple I need it please. She did not get it and just walked on. I suppose not living in a big City makes me a little more naïve than I like to think. There is a community here, but the rules are different, way different I imagine. This is confirmed for me a few days later by a young woman who used to live here, but that’s for later.

Ticket in hand I turn around and 4 or 5 guys in black uniforms are walking towards the Metro section where you pass your ticket through and I pass them by. They look like inspectors of some sort but maybe they are armed? I don’t want to look too hard and pass through. Two more are on the stairs and I wonder whether this is standard or something is about to go down. Police here don’t solve too many crimes I understand, I think the community looks after itself or not and they perhaps cannot wield any influence that will have an effect, they just butt out unless they are onto something big. Just how you police this sort of area I do not know. They seem like volcanoes waiting to erupt. Well I’m on my way now, on the train leaving the heat, the dead and a life that I can only guess at behind me. I will come back here I hope and find the seeds of her fall and her rise. Her spirit is in here, she left it behind here. I hope it still moves amongst those she cared for.

Back at the hostel I wash away the heat with a beer and talk and chat with the girls working there before eating, watching some sport on the TV screens and listening to the band that night before planning where I should go tomorrow. Perhaps I will take a walk with Ernest Hemingway, a stroll through the quiet side of Paris. Retrace some of his steps and see where they lead, I can do that with certainty. Yes a walk with Ernest it is. Walking with the dead is not always healthy but sometimes its as interesting as walking with the living. The City of Light yes, but its dark side is just as fascinating. Not unlike us really.

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The City and the Star

The City and the Star

Birth

In the beginning.

If ever I was asked, “Why Paris?” I would reply, “A woman”.

It was a blunt tool that I used, one designed at once to raise an eyebrow and at the same time create an air of mystery. One that was designed to say why else would you go there.

That reply would lend itself to many interpretations, some of which were in my own head, as they exist, I am quite certain, in other people’s heads. Perhaps unconsciously so, after all who doesn’t wish for some ‘dream lover’ to come along and at once solve all their worldly problems. A fantasy if you will, particularly a male one, though not exclusively.

That I was looking for love in one of the Cities of L’amour, perhaps, as some say, the most romantic city in the world and yes that’s pretty arguable I know, especially those better travelled than I, who perhaps would argue the case for a 1001 other places than Paris in which to find love, desire and a release from our earth-bound realities.

That a woman existed there for me to find, a woman who would sweep me off my feet, love me with a wild and lustful passion and feed me all the emotions known to humanity until I was ready to burst and I too would reciprocate her emptiness and fill her up with everything I had.

That I was looking for a mysterious woman, dark and secretive and alluring, one that would whisper sweet urgings of love in my ear with an accent soft and seductive and who would lure me into an affair from which I would never recover and she would remain in my heart forever, blotting and numbing out the real world that I would surely have to return to, but could at least escape from for a few weeks.

That I would forever hold a candle in my heart for her, forever to carry a torch of my own passed to me from one of the billions of lights that blaze brightly in Paris and which could never be extinguished..

Well, all or any of this may have been thought of as true in the minds of others. But the truth was actually more dark and sombre and yet much more illuminating than I could explain to anyone in just a few sentences. So I never did. That I was drawn here was the truth. By a woman, yes, but for now her story, in all its darkness and light, will have to wait. But there is no doubt that it was she who invited me and I accepted gladly and willingly.

It all happened in a rush and was just an extension of months and years of flirting with an idea, an idea that had taken on a slightly more serious tone this past 6 months. Maybe I should go to Paris and get a feeling for the city; perhaps pay a visit to the area where she lived if that was possible and then search and find where she had retired to.

Well, you know how it is when you get an idea in your head and before you know where you are, you’re doing the research, checking out the flights, the hotels, the costs, getting increasingly drawn into the idea day by day. You begin to confide in others, friends, work colleagues and before you know it, you’re committed, whether you want to admit it or not, like self-induced hypnosis, a self-fulfilling prophecy, it becomes inevitable. You chose the path least trodden and you take it.

So after considering flying to Paris from the small local East Midlands Airport and mulling over the costs, where the plane will land, transport, bag weight restrictions and so forth, I somehow stumbled on the idea of going by train. I cannot recall now, maybe I saw an advert pop-up somewhere, but I noticed Eurostar train journeys starting from £70 return, London, St. Pancras to Paris. (This was April, three months prior to when my ‘compulsory’ two weeks holiday would kick in) I knew I could get to London from The Midlands by coach for £10 one way, hop onto the Underground to St. Pancras and that the Eurostar train arrives in the heart of Paris at Gare du Nord. Certainly it would be a longer journey at about 11 hours in total compared to perhaps 5 or 6 by plane (From home to hostel), but in adding up the costs, the train option was certainly as cheap if not cheaper and the idea of a nice easy coach and train ride through the English and French countryside and the fresh experience of Eurostar certainly appealed to me. Fewer baggage restrictions and costs were attractive too and I had all day to get there and so a nice relaxing journey awaited me.

At the same time I had been checking out hostels for price and location and the St. Christopher’s Hostel at Canal Martin had received good reviews and a sister hostel was due to open in July just 100 yards from Gare du Nord. Perfect. Without hesitation and feeling the Gods had conspired to arrange this, I booked the hostel, the coach and the train and spent the next three months accumulating a small pile of A4 sheets of paper bearing the location, costs and such of the 1001 museums, attractions and places of interest which The City of Light offered. I read as much as I could on the history of Paris and about its characters, but all the time I was bearing in mind that she was pulling me there, so yes, I should have a good time too, but that I must not forget her, and yet I must not expect too much. It was baby steps. Of course it seems inevitable now that I should also watch the odd ‘French’ film, “Amelie”, “Midnight in Paris” and “Intouchables”, plus other lesser known films, just to give me a flavour of the town and indeed they drew me in further to want to experience this City of so many cultures.

Despite my enthusiasm, I laid no plans that were definitive. The 1st. Sunday of the month in Paris is the day when all the museums are free, so that was close to a plan. Versailles or Fontainebleau was a choice to be made. Certainly a slow thoughtful stroll around Pere LaChaise Cemetery to visit Jim and his feast of friends was a must. A fairly late entry into the race was a visit to the Cathedral in Saint Denis, due north of Paris, where over 40 Kings and Queens of France were entombed and close to where the woman I had such affection and respect for lived much of her life. I hoped to take a walk or two from a book I had bought, “Forever Paris: 25 walks in the footsteps of Chanel, Hemingway, Picasso and more” by Christina Henry de Tessan. But in what order or when and how these things would occur I had no idea at this stage. This would be a casual affair, nothing rushed or frantic, just a slow coiling desire that would come to inhabit me, enough to inspire me further on my quest to get to know Paris and her.

The City and the Star.

Inevitably  the day arrived, as it always does. Tuesday July 31st in my case. The coach journey via National Express was almost uneventful, except for the fact that we were running about a half hour late into London. Heavy traffic. Holiday traffic. Realising that Eurostar ask you to check in at St. Pancras at least half an hour before leaving and that the journey across London from Victoria Coach Station via The Underground could take three-quarters of an hour, I was glad I had left a gap of 2 hours or so in between the coach arriving and the train leaving. It’s about a 10 minute walk from Victoria Coach station to Victoria Underground and I was glad I had decided to fit all and sundry into two medium sized bags, rather than one large suitcase as it was easier to carry two bags around the shoulder than wheel a suitcase across pavements and through London’s crowds. I tried in vain to fit my goods and chattels in one bag, but alas there was nothing I could or would dare leave out. I haven’t learned to compress a few items in one bag as yet and frankly I don’t think I ever will. I have my comfort zones and comfort blankets just like anyone else.

A one way ticket from Victoria to St. Pancras via London Underground was £4. 50 I noted and though I didn’t think too much about the price, but I was on holiday and the train got me there in 10 minutes, but that price would stick in my head and come back to me later. At St. Pancras the Eurostar ticket machine kindly received my ticket, or at least it read that strange black and white square-shaped pattern symbol that looks like a crossword puzzle that can only be solved by an alien and let me through the barriers before I came to the security check area. These are areas I have fallen foul of more than once, not with any serious circumstances, just mild embarrassment. I loaded my two bags on the moving belt and waited for the security guy to usher me through the gate. However I hadn’t reasoned that they still wish to have you pass through a gate that detects metal. So I empty my pockets, leave coins, keys etc. in the adjoining tray and confidentially walk through.

Triiiiing!!!

Ok here comes the frisk. Here comes the delightful young lady to give me the once over. Nope, that’s just a fantasy, here comes the huge mean looking son-of-a-bitch guy who looks like he could strangle his grandmother without conscience and now wants to squeeze flesh and muscle with fingers the size of bananas.

I spread legs and arms wide. He began at the socks and worked his way up the outside of my legs and then the inside. Of course they stop short of the erogenous zones and move on.

Well I would not say it was a squeeze or a grope and of course I am certain it was accidental, but his 1st. finger left hand met my right testicle, which on contact retreated upwards, claiming shelter from the storm. I flinched and looked down on his jacket lapel for a pink curved ribbon and his face for a smile and a wink, but saw no such thing and made a mental note to make sure there was no way I could set the machine off on my return. A frisk at mid body level revealed a belt with the offending metal buckle. Satisfied, I was allowed through with relief. I get the same feeling passing through these necessary precautions as I do when being followed, harmlessly, by a police car. Guilt!

I sit and wait in the vast and expansive hall until we are called through about 20 minutes from departure. We climb aboard a moving staircase and move up to the platform like robots loading onto “The Death Star” in a “Star Wars” movie to where a train awaits. A train so long it snakes the whole length of the platform and then some. These snakes are between 320 and 400 metres long and carry up to 750 passengers and close up they are huge impressive, muscular beasts, but once inside they give a feeling of safety and comfort and indeed the seats and the legroom, are very comfortable and the journey time is just 2hours 15 minutes with one hour to add on for Paris time. We take our pre-booked seats after shovelling our luggage into the end of carriage racks and settle in for the ride.

The train crawls, slides and rolls along through the tangle of railway lines of South London, weaving its way passed vast construction works and occasionally revealing a few sights before disappearing into tunnels and reappearing in green fields and running parallel to motorways and roads. Here the speed picks up, we are cruising, though it’s hard to tell what that speed is as the ride is so smooth, it’s like flying 6 foot off the ground. I guess from the way we are easing past cars on motorways, perhaps we are racing at 100 M.P.H., perhaps more. I read of speeds of 180, but it’s so deceptively comfortable and quiet, I couldn’t confirm or deny that.

Time through the tunnel is about 20 minutes before I emerged into the sunlight and French countryside. I realised my holiday had begun when I saw a roadside sign and couldn’t understand it. I cannot emphasise again just how smooth the ride is and to be able to gaze out of the window and watch the world go by at speed is really quite wonderful, and of course you can wander up and down the train if you wish, grab a sandwich and drink and stretch your legs.

Soon we were rolling through the outskirts of Paris, the banlieu, Saint Denis, Sarcelles and I couldn’t help notice the graffiti plastered all over the walls over the edges of the concrete buttes that enclose the lines and even on the metal stanchions. It seemed to cover almost aspect of the trackside scenery. I imagine it’s a common sight around the world and for those who travel a great deal more than I, it’s probably not a surprise, but for anyone thinking it is ugly and spoils the view, well it would be easy to agree with that, but these suburbs of Paris are tough places to live I know that much and the kids see it as a form of expression and art and it’s no different from those guys who scratched animals on the walls of their caves in Chauvet, France 30 000 years ago. They are expressing themselves and their lives and some of it is really quite beautiful, though I have no idea what any of it says. Names, statements, swearwords, gang names. I guess the authorities could remove it, but why would they? It would only come back and to me it’s just part of the character of the City. Paris may be The City of Light, but it has its dark side. I remembered reading in a guide book, many guide books in fact, that you will often be approached by people offering you trinkets, tickets and such and you should simply say “Non, merci”, not with anger, remembering that there are many, many poor people here in Paris and their circumstances are not as such their own fault. Paris has a rich history, but it is one of turmoil and the effects of its past can be seen all over the city. It’s very easy to judge what you see, but that may only be a manifestation of an inner problem. The lady who invited me here knew that all too well.

We pull up at Gare du Nord and disembark. It’s a huge station with many levels, serving not only Eurostar and the regional lines, but the Metro and RER too, having something like 44 platforms. I found sometimes you had to explore a little to find the section you wanted but the signage is very clear and the facilities are outstanding. I read it’s the busiest railway station in Europe and I can believe it. It’s the station that never sleeps.

I walked out from the man-made glare under the covering of Gare du Nord into the sunlight of a beautiful summer’s day in Paris. The façade of Gare du Nord is magnificent, decorated with 8 statues depicting 8 of the major destinations the station reaches out to with the main edifice of all depicting the mother city, Paris.

I turned left on Rue de Dunkerque and take in the fresh summer air. Wow! What is that? I can’t help contrast the wonderful view of the statues above with the pungent smell arising from the pavement below. Obviously this is an area frequented by people who are perhaps sleeping rough, which is confirmed by the presence of a van and a large table close to the pavement from which food and drinks are being served to a collection of world-weary men. On the side of the van I can make out the words “Catholic Church”. Succour for the needy. In many ways it’s a perfect introduction to Paris, the sad and the sublime, the poor and the wealthy, the darkness and the light. Lucky and unlucky all mingled together and if not bound by wealth, bound by the air we breathe.

I walked through the crowds, people coming my way straining for the station, people dodging and weaving their way back home, travellers with cases in tow, guys hanging about who congregate around the Station front, not that I anticipated problems, but it’s a city after all, but then over the next 10 days I can hardly remember a day when a small group of army guys were not patrolling along this section of Paris and they were armed to the teeth. I don’t know whether there was a security alert or this was just routine, but either way it was at once both comforting and slightly alarming.

St. Christopher’s Hostel is there, the entrance concealed a little with a patio entrance leading onto the reception, café and its focal area, the Belushi bar. I check in, it’s busy, matter a fact it’s always busy. I can barely remember a time when I walked through reception and no one was waiting to check in. Check in was simple, I had done it online. There was a card key for access to my room and 10 plastic cards to present for my ‘upgrade’ breakfast each day. I had no idea what this ‘upgrade’ was, but would discover this in the morning. I intended to fill up each morning, snack through the day and catch up again with the food at night. This was Paris on the cheap, saving my money for the visits I had in mind, there was no room for the pricey restaurant’s I’m afraid, much as I would have loved to have indulged myself. Room 305, third floor, I took the lift (there is two) and wander the long corridors before turning left and enter the room.

The room is spacious, about 8 or 9 yards square with 10 beds bunk style around the outside and facing out onto the street opposite a window running the whole length of the fourth wall. The view was a Best Western hotel directly in front and up the road towards Gare du Nord. There’s a wash hand basin, the ceiling is high giving the feeling of an airy room with space to stretch out.

The pod beds are good, long, fairly firm, a duvet if needed and the gizmos behind the bed include an individual light and two plugs to either recharge or take the current for whatever your instrument of choice is, PC, phone etc. There’s a curtain which covers the entire length of the bed too for privacy and underneath the bed a huge cage for keeping your stuff in.

I unpack my stuff and chat to the young girl sat opposite. She’s from Vancouver, via Toronto and having a year out travelling. That won’t be the last time I hear that whilst I am here. All done and I decide to have a pint and bite. I take the lift down, wander into the Belushi bar, order a pint of 1664 and a chicken Caesar salad. It’s a sizeable area, square, on two levels, a central bar surrounded on four sides, very rugged and solid with two separate areas for eating and one for smoking. The place is really buzzing, not full but there is constant movement all the time. This certainly ain’t no quiet country club or a quaint old pub in the English countryside.

I’m checking out the scene, the staff and notice a small woman buzzing about the place, older than the rest of the staff. She is tiny, pale skin, dark hair coiled on her head as if set there but perhaps is longer than it looks once let down, she has a pretty face, French maybe or some mixture of culture, I don’t know. She’s wearing a loose black dress to the knee and which plunges to her bosom, no stockings. She’s busy, just plain busy. I come to realise that perhaps she is the ‘boss’, the manageress.

The food arrives quickly and it’s a huge bowl of delicious Caesar salad, full of chicken and bacon, flushed down with a really cold Kronenburg 1664 and then bed. It’s been a long day, but I’m here and ready for Paris. And her.

There’s movement in the night, lights go on, bodies shift, bodies come and go in the room and are not careful about closing the door quietly. It bangs shut relentlessly all week. The ‘pod’ beds are all connected and so anytime anyone moves with any considerable degree of force, having a nightmare, climbing down to pee, a small bounce up and down for no apparent reason, you can feel it through the metal struts. I’m ready for this though and if I miss out on sleep, I will catch up later in the day.

I did not sleep easily, I was restless and it was warm, very warm. The huge open window helped, but I wake and I have a thumping headache. I don’t know why. Yesterday was a long day, a strange bed, a strange place. People are heading downstairs for breakfast, but I’m not. I have to take tablets and lie still. I think I remember that breakfast is served until 10. 30, so I will sleep it off.  10. 30 comes and goes and my head and stomach fair no better. Breakfast is out and bed is in. I lie still until about 2 p.m. and I feel a little better. Well I’m getting up, stomach and head ready or not, I’m going for a walk. I see there is a ‘free’ walk around Paris, the Montmartre area, which starts outside The Moulin Rouge, more precisely the Metro station ‘Blanche’. Of course, it’s not free, you give a tip when done. It sounds good, maybe the walk with others will clear my head, I’ll be forced to keep up. I decide to walk there as it’s only 30 minutes away.

I walk past Gare du Nord, along Rue de Dunkerque and a breeze has picked up, a strong one. Maybe that aroma will dissipate in the wind. No such luck. All the breeze does is blow hard in my face. There’s no escape from it. I hold my breath but decide it’s all part of the scene, the perfumery of the poor. I’m not mocking them or anyone by the way, I’m just so ambivalent about people sleeping rough. They will always be there I know, but surely if we are such a sophisticated and caring society, no one should have to sleep on the streets.

I walk past shops and cafes and cafes and shops, a few shoe shops, grocery shops, not the expensive ones, this is not a glamorous area, it’s a little rough and ready. The pavement here is wide, but there’s a tree planted every 10 yards or so, slap in the middle of the pavement and its set in a base about 3 foot wide and so you have to thread your way between that (or tread in it) and the shop front displays, the hordes of people coming your way, people standing and talking, to each other or on phones or to themselves. I skip over to the left where the pavement is clear, now that’s better.

Triiiing!!!

I turn and leap back. It’s a cycle path about 3 feet wide and they go hell for leather, bombing down it at speed. They must be locals as no tourist would be that confident of cycling that fast. I content myself walking under the trees and on the tree base. I turn left onto Boulevard de Rochechouart and the scenery changes. It’s a wider road, dual carriageway either way. The pavement is narrower here and it’s as though with that and the cars parked by the road, they are pushing you towards the sex shops that line the road. They look seedy and I remember reading stories from guys who went in and were conned into expensive drinks and were then threatened and ejected or even fought back. Not my idea of fun. I get approached by a Madame inviting me to sample her wares. Well, not her wares, her compatriots in the back rooms.

“Non merci”, I say with a wave of the hand.

I’m as polite as I can be but yet I am dismissive. “Non merci” is going to be used a lot I fear.

It’s part of the scene again. Paris is and always was the city with a one hand on your heart, one hand on your wallet and from somewhere, a mysterious third hand that massages your ego, if you understand me.

Another few minutes of sex shops and cinemas and “Blanche” Metro arrives. I need to sit and wait. I will check out the gathering walkers and the guide first and see who turns up. Between the two carriageways here, sits a huge round raised area where you can park your bottom to rest. I realise it’s part of the underground system, cold air is blasting upwards. No wonder this is a popular place to sit. You can take photographs of the Moulin Rouge from here and be comfortable in the heat at the same time. The regulars know this of course and before long a plumpish woman with four dogs appears and she sits on the edge whilst her dogs and puppies frolic on the grating, the cold air feeling good to them as they get a cooling down and some affection from passer-by’s.

I kick my heals watching people pass by, posing for their friends with the scarlet red windmill of the Moulin Rouge in the background, a place of former decadence now a must-have photo, a Babylon of babes is now a backdrop for pretend louche ladies who pose in everyone’s lens.

4 p.m. comes around and there is a collection of people around the “Blanche” Metro station entrance. A small group of youngsters and a guide wearing an orange top who looks about 12 have gathered. Hmmm. Well, no disrespect, but I just get the feeling this walk isn’t for me, not now, maybe later in the week. I walk round a few times wondering whether I should walk back to the hostel or walk up to Sacre Couer. I criss-cross the road a few times to see how I feel and just stand around, ‘humming and hawing’ when from somewhere a guy appears at my back. He whispers something. I can’t tell you what he said. He wanders off. Did he think I was hanging about, looking for an invitation of some sort? I don’t know. How strange. Or maybe not.

I need food. I walk up the hill, Rue Lepic, in front of me, passing an extraordinary building with a huge white -grey facade that looks like a real building right up to the top floor, until I realise that behind this frontage…is nothing…just space. It’s like a huge slab of concrete just balancing on the building below. I guess it is supported somehow, somewhere. I hope so. Maybe it’s the Sword of Damocles hanging by a horse hair over the dark racy history of the Moulin Rouge. One slip and…

Half-way up the hill there is a shop on the left, a tiny supermarket. I grab a basket and look for something I can stomach to eat. Some plain sandwiches will do. I come out with ice cream, yoghurt and one sandwich, plus a rum baba. Not exactly what the doctor would order for a headache and a dodgy stomach but you go with your heart sometimes for whatever makes you feel good.

I stroll around Montmartre, climbing steadily towards Sacre Couer, which evades me then reappears between buildings, shops and crowds. Cobblestone streets are trodden by wandering tourists as they must have been trod by artists and troubadours, drunken men and women, carousing and cuddling in the little alleys, farting and fucking, fighting and feuding, painting and pissing their lives away, creating great art and destroying their souls in the process. I climb further, hoping the ice cream won’t melt.

From somewhere a couple joins the throng, a guy in a proper penguin suit and a woman in a wedding dress, closely followed by a man with a long lens camera. Are they just married or modelling wedding outfits? I don’t know. Curious, I will follow. They walk slowly, the ‘bride’ with her dress held up and collected around her thighs so she will not trip over it, the photographer in front now, looking for the right spot. We near Sacre Couer and there is a guy sitting on the kerb playing an accordion. We get near to him, the guy, the girl, the photographer and me, the stalker. As we pass by the accordionist immediately switches from his French Parisian tune to the wedding march. I laugh out loud at him and his appropriate quick thinking.

We are now descending the steps of Sacre Couer and everybody is watching and admiring the scene. But they don’t stop here, they go down, the lens-man isn’t happy yet, he wants that perfect memorable shot. Finally he finds what he was looking for. Grass. The bride slips off her high heels and floats over the green baize, joining the groom, whilst the auteur drops down to a lower level so that his shots will have the Sacre Couer as background. Wow! What a shot this is going to be.

People clear the decks as the bride and groom twist, contort and cling onto the grass in various poses (practice for later no doubt) whilst the lens man clicks away, as do I and half a dozen other folks. It’s a wonderful moment for everyone. The bride is a real looker too, beautiful and I guess once you see the photos, you’ll probably concur that about her and her groom too.

Well they disappear and I’m about to eat my ice cream (s) (I bought 4 small tubs), when three far eastern looking ladies appear.

“Would you take our photos please?”

The bride and groom are still shooting. (Not each other)

“Yes, do you want them next to the bride and groom?”

The girls titter in fake shock. They line up and pose and I shoot.

“Thank you. Thank you”

I sit down to eat melted ice cream.

“Excuse me. Would you take our photos please?”

A middle aged couple appear. They lie down on the grass. (The young nuptials have gone now). The newly married couple coo’d and kissed and so I was going to whisper to this older couple “kissy-kissy”. But they were, I felt, too stricken in years and shyness to want to express before me and 100 other people their long felt wants and besides, I did not want to unplug a volcano and make the scarlet Moulin Rouge blush an even darker shade of red.

More photos, more thank you’s.

I sit down again, scanning the horizon for lovesick couples. All clear now.

I scoff four tubs of ice cream, all different flavours, walnut, banana, strawberry and some kind of Americano recipe. I take a vitamin supplement too, figuring with the heat and my lack of food I need it.

I sit back and admire the view both ways, Paris below, Sacre Couer behind and the blue sky above.

The Eiffel Tower is iconic of Paris and has come to symbolise much about the City. But for me, the sight of Sacre Couer bathed in sunlight and sat high on Montmartre speaks to me of a symbol of a mysterious land somewhere, as if a combination of many religions were centred here, a coming together of many beliefs in one building. Of course it’s a Roman Catholic Church and it was only completed in 1914 but it seems to hark back to some Moorish, Middle-Eastern place and time and is quite magnificent in its proportions. I imagine anyone coming home or arriving in Paris knows they are home when they see the Eiffel Tower, but to see Sacre Couer evokes a feeling of a different kind, a sanctuary, a symbol of forgiveness and comfort.

This must be one of the busiest churches in the world judging by the amount of people coming up the steps, none of who can escape the clutches of the guys trying to sell “cold beer” and even an hour later they still try. Perhaps a little honesty would have been appropriate by then. “Luke warm beer” perhaps would be more fitting. I don’t take up their offer, another, “Non merci”.

I’m not rushing around here in Paris and I’m not on a clock. So I grab a book from my bag and begin reading. The book is “Paris Paris” by David D. Downie, a wonderful collection of trails and adventures, personal reminisces of Paris. For this time I read about Amedeo Modigliani. Downie makes a comparison with Jim Morrison in that Amedeo wanted to live a short full life, which he duly fulfilled and so too did Jim.

Amedeo was an Italian born painter and sculptor who early on in his life contracted the biggest killer of people around 1900.Tuberculosis. It was easily transmittable and had no cure. He perhaps masked his condition in order not to be shunned and by consuming drink and drugs in huge amounts he cultivated an image of a wild man and eccentric artist, even in these Bohemian surroundings. His work output was prolific as was his conquest of women and he succumbed to his disease in 1920, leaving behind his beautiful young wife Jeanne, who was nine months pregnant with his child and the day after Amedeos death and in desperation, she duly waked backwards out of her parents 5th. floor window, falling to her death and that of her unborn child.

I read all this and sit and gaze out over this area of Montmartre and wonder what it must have been like back then. I recalled Woody Allen’s film “Midnight in Paris” in which Owen Wilsons character is being mocked by Michael Sheens bumptious sarcasm for searching for a time “La belle époque”, that he believes existed. The world he wants, a world of pure artistry and genius, did exist, but not without despair and poverty and ill health and short painful lives. Artists truly dying for their art. It sounds Romantic, but to be one of these people or be around them must have been at times pure hell, but they somehow reached the heights and depths of the human soul and depicted it in writing and in the arts and which laid foundations which others built on and owe much too. Artists remain here still, perhaps some who may come to challenge those gone before, but somehow I get the feeling that certain times in history gave birth to a monumental changes which cannot be repeated, the Beatles and Elvis for example. Something came together at one time, flourished and then died with the times.

After basking in the glow of the sun, I decide to walk up to Sacre Couer and go inside. There are hundreds of people milling about and a small queue at the entrance, but soon I am inside. Notices say no photos and although tempted I abide by the rules. Its magnificent and with the construction being completed only 100 years ago, perhaps it gives an impression of what some of the older and just as magnificent churches looked like shortly after they were finished. The clarity and colour of the inside of the dome is stunning. I walk around the outside slowly as there is a service going on, quietly and reverently. There is a machine from which for 2 Euro’s you can purchase a gold coin depicting Sacre Couer and for a trinket is quite classy and so I take two. The service ends and I file out with those now blessed as they in turn bless the altar and leave, no doubt more humble and sanctified than when they entered.

I take a slow stroll down past through the stalls waiting for buyers and artists waiting for models, each displaying their portraits of the past whilst the busiest stalls are the ones offering head and neck massages, perhaps releasing the strain from all their gazing.

It’s all downhill from here, twisting and turning down the narrow cobbled streets, past quaint cafes and table lined restaurant’s, often with a waiter outside, smiling, welcoming. Soon I am back by the Moulin Rouge and I wander slowly back to the hostel, this time down the centre walkway that divides the dual-carriageway road, past people talking, smoking, killing time, surfacing from underground hot and bothered, as if emerging from Dante’s Inferno until finally hitting the hostel.

I’m greeted with a welcome from the lady manageress who serves me a 1664, which goes down well and gives me an appetite for another Caesar salad which is served by a very pretty young woman in whom I detect a faint Australian accent; I think. She confirms this, but says she has lost much of it since moving in with girls of varying accents and nationalities. She has an interesting face too which suggests a another country and she confirms that she is Philippino too and we chat about this and that and I‘m beginning to feel at home here and having weathered the storm of slight sickness today I look forward to tomorrow, though still with no plan in store, although I can feel her tugging at my sleeve, “Don’t forget me, I’m here, waiting”.

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Shakespeare in love..and life and death.

Shakespeare in love……and life and death

You walk from the buzzing bustling town centre of Stratford-upon-Avon, out past The Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre complex and you follow the sloth-like river Avon and the manicured gardens that run parallel with the road you are walking, for just a short distance, before the road and river run away and fork around the church that sits like an island between the two avenues. The same river Avon on which the Queens own elegant white swans ebb and flow alongside the put-put craft that idle up and down its silent waters. Waters that soak up the emotions of the voices that seep from the walls of the Shakespeare Theatres foundations and spread their sounds like a distant echo of the past into the tributaries that connect to her and then deposit Shakepeare’s eloquent wisdom as dampness onto the banks, bridges and buildings of England’s hamlets, villages and towns as the waters wander through the English countryside, unstoppable and irresistible. A constant flow of his legacy that we can and do still tap into and be quenched by.

Today the bobbing craft on the Avon are loaded with huge black-eyed sight-seers who, perhaps surprisingly and happily are caught out, sheltering their own lenses from the mid-May and midday sun with sunglasses. Shakepeare’s sun, the same sun he saw rise as a child and set as an old man, though old for him in his time was just 52, our very own middle age, the new 40. The sun that he used so often in his work and for which perhaps he held the same belief as did E.E. Cummings, in that, ‘No sunbeam ever lies’.

The sun that like he, rose and fell and is like him, renewable for all time it seems, as if his tales of fortune and foul play, dark and dirty romance, of lost, lasting and lingering love are all timeless in themselves, rounding the planet constantly and are beamed down from that bright orange oracle, infecting us all. All of us featuring in the seemingly endlessly variable detail of the plays he wrote and each of us in turn thinking we discover new lands as if they were fresh and wild, only to realise through our own pains and suffering that we have merely stumbled on the same lands laid claim to by others, aeons before, and that we are all bound by the same universal laws that give us an illusion of freedom and that perhaps our lives are so small we cannot make a mark worthy of our time here.

But then too, on revision, like a flock of starlings that weaves the light of the day into dusk and thence into night, if we could only see our place in the flock, we would know that we touch the heavens with our majesty and become part of a whole that is beauty, and what is beauty but truth and truth, beauty.

You wander down the lane that has narrowed from a road and leaves behind the hustle and bustle of tongues twisted and tongues lost in translation and away from the click and clack of cameras, until there, shading under trees is a church, quite a small church, now hidden from view in the exuberant spring outburst of green. A small church with a sharp spire, hidden and unobtrusive, shying away from the town centre and Shakepeare’s Theatre, not attracting attention, not demanding to be heard, just sitting patient, but yet holding all the treasures on Earth.

. ‘The Collegiate Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon’

At the T junction you turn left and then shortly the entrance to the church appears and you walk along a straight gravel path that rises slowly, passing through a graveyard, up towards the main entrance of the church. Once inside, to the right is a tiny brightly lit book and gift shop with people almost whispering, and to the left are the rows of pews and further up the altar and large stained glass window above it.

You walk between the pews and half-way there is a sign where the pews are blocked off and the sign there says ‘Nominal’ £2 please for viewing Shakepeare’s tomb’, or words to that effect. A man quietly and without demand almost embarrassingly takes your ‘nominal’ £2 and hands you a leaflet about the church and Shakespeare’s connection. walk about 10 yards and there is a raised altar, about a foot higher and a further section higher than that.

Its hushed tones only here and as you walk a few more yards, it hits you. There on the left hand side of the altar is a throne, though its invisible. At least I expected a throne and perhaps there should be a throne. For here is a King and though we all finally have to lay down one day, it was as if this man perhaps should have been buried in a place higher up, celebrated, exalted, perhaps raised on high at least at a level on a par with our eyes, but really I felt as if I should be standing there gazing upwards, as if looking heavenwards. A simple man, many would say, but surely a God amongst men.

I stood there alongside visitors. Visitors looking, reading, thinking, wishing, wondering, quietly snapping memories for the folks back home. I wonder what he would have thought of that? That his grave would be captured on paper or by atoms of light and could be transported around the world by flying devices or transmitted through the air instantaneously and received the other side of the world on a screen with moving pages. Would Shakepeare own a computer? A camera? What would he have written about were he alive today? Perhaps he had already seen into our minds and deeds long ago. After all it seems he saw us as we are 500 years ago and nothing too much changes in our basic wants and needs and desires. He knew us before we knew ourselves. He didn’t need the use of DNA, or science, psychological theory’s, he had the mind to observe and postulate and read the mind of men and pose a story, a question that was, like all great works, personal and yet universal.

So there he lay, The King. Not the King of Rock n’Roll. Not the King of Pop. Not a King of Blue Blood and inherited power, power disposed rightly or taken by force. Not a King of Industry, a self-appointed King, a King for a Day, not even the King of Heaven, but a King with a Kingdom of all history and all things human.

Now I can honestly say that I have never read an entire play of his in my life. I have seen numerous films and heard parts of plays on the radio. But his impact on all of us is beyond evaluation.

Ben Jonson anticipated Shakespeare’s dazzling future when he declared, “He was not of an age, but for all time!”

Shakespeare’s ability to summarize the range of human emotions in simple yet profoundly eloquent verse is perhaps the greatest reason for his enduring popularity. If you cannot find words to express how you feel about love or music or growing older, Shakespeare can speak for you. No author in the Western world has penned more beloved passages.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers’

‘We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.’

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?

William Shakespeare was the most remarkable storyteller that the world has ever known. Homer told of adventure and men at war, Sophocles and Tolstoy told of tragedies and of people in trouble. Terence and Mark Twain told comedic stories, Dickens told melodramatic ones, Plutarch told histories and Hand Christian Andersen told fairy tales. But Shakespeare told every kind of story – comedy, tragedy, history, melodrama, adventure, love stories and fairy tales – and each of them so well that they have become immortal. In all the world of storytelling he has become the greatest name.Shakespeare’s stories transcend time and culture. Modern storytellers continue to adapt Shakespeare’s tales to suit our modern world, whether it be the tale of Lear on a farm in Iowa, Romeo and Juliet on the mean streets of New York City, or Macbeth in feudal Japan.

Many of the common expressions now thought to be clichés were Shakespeare’s creations. Chances are you use Shakespeare’s expressions all the time even though you may not know it is the Bard you are quoting. You may think that fact is “neither here nor there”, but that’s “the short and the long of it.”

If you cannot understand my argument, and declare “It’s Greek to me”, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger, if your wish is father to the thought, if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool’s paradise – why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare; if you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage, if you think it is high time and that that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason, then – to give the devil his due – if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your head) you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I were dead as a door-nail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot, then – by Jove! O Lord! Tut, tut! for goodness’ sake! what the dickens! but me no buts – it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare. (The Story of English, )

Here then, at this simple graveside, there was no fanfare, no musak, no flowers, no weeping and wailing or gnashing of teeth, nothing elaborate or flashy or gaudy, for all intents and purpose if the sign had not been there fronting his grave, it may well have passed for some long forgotten nobleman’s resting place.

But there he was, a giant of a man, in a small grave, in a small church, in a small town, somewhere in the middle of a small country. And for all the power some men claim to possess, whether through money, or war and bloodshed, or industry or materials, here was The King, His power was the power of the mind and the means and language to express it with. The king of his mind and our minds too.

And all for just a nominal £2.

God bless the King.

Chute, Marchette. Stories from Shakespeare. New York: World Publishing Company, 1956. 
Levin, Bernard. Quoted in The Story of English. Robert McCrum, William Cran and Robert MacNeil. Viking: 1986).

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Apocalypse….now and then.

 “APOCALYPSE….NOW AND THEN”

Good morning, good afternoon, good evening, wherever you are,

Apocalypse does not point to a fiery Armageddon but to the fact that our ignorance and our complacency are coming to an end… The exclusivism of there being only one way in which we can be saved, the idea that there is a single religious group that is in sole possession of the truth—that is the world as we know it that must pass away. What is the kingdom? It lies in our realization of the ubiquity of the divine presence in our neighbours, in our enemies, in all of us.”

  • Joseph Campbell, ‘Thou Art That’

Well, it passed us by without even the merest hint of a whisper. The Mayan Apocalypse that is. I never felt a thing, did you? I can honestly say that the Earth didn’t move for me. There was no earthquake, no tidal waves, no pestilence and I don’t recall the clouds opening up and the voice of an angry God booming out hell-fire and damnation. Nor do I recall any thunderbolts flying from the downward thrust fingertips of any deity and striking the Earth. Frankly, if I’d have handed over hard earned money for that, had it been a 3D ride at Universal Studios, I’d be asking for a refund.

But now that’s out of the way we have another dramatic ending to look forward to; the end of the year show. You know the one, that certain annual ritual we play that involves looking back over the past 12 months with warmth, sadness, regret, desire, longing, melancholy, wishful thinking, hope, a smile and a celebration and all those human emotions that we enjoy or inflict on ourselves in a yearly resurrection of a religious zealots desire to self flagellate ourselves with new year resolutions that we haven’t a hope in hell of keeping, as they are exactly the same ones we could not keep this year.

We mull over the conversations we had, the conversations we wish we hadn’t had. The people we met and the people we wish we hadn’t. The sex we had and the sex we had with other people too. The promises made and the promises broken. Decisions made for the better, for worse or not at all. That gym we joined and the gym we haven’t stepped inside of in six months. The friends we made and the friends we sometimes wish we had unfriended. The dates we went on that went OK and the blind dates we never made, turning back when we saw them waiting and cursed ourselves knowing we were right to have asked for photo’s first. The books we read and the other books we never because we were too busy fantasising about those other books we read; 50 shades of Grey. It’s that time when we look back and wonder where our life went, what we achieved, what we lost, gained, missed, won, lost, cried about, laughed about, loved , hated and maybe even learned.

So yes we’re still here, still rotating, still wending our way across the Universe and yes the Sun still comes up day after day, even if, (depending on your location) like the United Kingdom, it is shrouded in dark winter clouds and the rain those clouds hold and that we were promised years ago by climatologists, keeps on falling, enough to give cause to the idea that perhaps we ought, like Steve Carrell in ‘Evan Almighty’ who, under the commandment of God turns into a modern day Noah, run to the nearest book store and ask for a copy of “Ark Building for Dummies” and although I haven’t seen any lengthy queues forming outside the local hardware stores or burly bearded men gathering around architects plans and arguing over what a cubit is or is not, frankly that once unlikely scenario no longer surprises me.

I was tempted to write a small piece on this end-of-year-reflective-thingy that would sum up the woes of the world that we read about, all the horrors that we (that is the collective we ….unless you are reading this and you are specifically and currently the dictator or commander in chief of a country raining death down on certain chosen people, in which case you will probably want to pass on this) perpetrate or are perpetrated in our names. All that stuff that has been thrust on us (and that we seek out and share) this past year by the media, the newspapers and the internet, books, leaflets, documentaries and then too we pass our own versions on by word of mouth or wing it at the speed of light across the world by e mail, paste it onto web-sites or post it on one of the the numerous social media available and for which we are truly thankful…..sometimes.

But frankly I’m not going to go there. As misanthropic as I can be and as much as I would wish to cry Woe! Woe! and thrice Woe!, I will not. I refuse to add to the noise and clamour, the beating drums, the wailing and gnashing of teeth and the predictions of doom that have been heralded this past fifty years or so since the publication of Rachel Carsons “Silent Spring”. Good and wonderful lady that she was, I will not stand upon her slim but magnificent shoulders. For all of the warnings we have read, heard and seen are constantly being sucked up like water vapour and shaped into humongous mushroom clouds, huge loaded storms that build and build, layer upon layer, pressing down with so much pressure that it becomes physical to the whole human body, disturbing not just the soft machine, but the mind and the soul, until finally the sky can no longer hold, the heavens fall and relief comes only when the wrathful male sky subjugates the willing female Earth and the two lie in peace, sated and smoking and then the whole orgasmic process rears its head again, and again, and again.

Sorry, was that too much?

I am being flippant…of course. I know only too well that these things are happening and we do stand at the precipice of the sixth extinction and species are disappearing faster then a husband bolting towards a store for a life-saving bottle of perfume for his vexed wife who is still waiting for a gift worthy of the dinner she slaved over on Christmas Day. Climate change we are told and I would contest, we are witnessing, is moving off into mysterious and unknown patterns of behaviour that surely will (and surely are) inflicting on us changing weather systems which we will either adapt to, or not.

But I don’t wish to add my thoughts to that thorny subject.

Then there is the all consuming financial crisis and the politicians and other establishment figures and organisations in whom we have placed our trust and sometimes turn out to have feet of clay, the governments of the world and their austerity programs that are crushing certain countries seemingly into a compressed box that may turn to tinder. There is too our continuous exploitation and consumption of our planets resources that drives huge conglomerates to ravage the planet without due thought and respect for the effects they are or may be having at some future time, or at the very least they are reckless in their actions. The continuous demand for oil, for palm and engine use, which is pushing back the sacred forest boundaries inch by inch, collapsing our Earths lungs, capillary by capillary and extinguishing the opportunity to discover the glorious breadth of life that supports us all and that from this we may reproduce such drugs from close study that may cure the most ravaging of diseases. Kinda neat that one, we cry out for a longer healthier life, yet diminish the chances of finding cures by destroying the very thing which may help us.

I could muse on that, but I’m not going to talk about it.

There is too the seemingly inevitable reduction and breakdown of the Arctic Ice, until that beautiful blind white continent that steadies the suns output will affect us somehow, some way and unpredictably so, and for the UK may well disrupt the warm Gulf Stream waters and give us,…now is it hotter summers with more rain and/or more severe and colder winters…I’m not sure….neither are they, but change it will. It looks like that in the process we will lose that most dangerous of animals that threatens us so, the Polar Bear. But there may be hope in that sad situation. I can, with my most fantastical eye, envisage a scene whereby all the worlds cameras, all the worlds press, in fact all the world is watching in the biggest reality TV show ever broadcast as the last and smallest piece of Arctic Ice slips and sails by the collective crowds of New York and the flotilla of ships that surround it, watching and waiting in horror and anticipation as atop the Ice is the the last known family of Polar Bears. And as they look at us and we them, we remember those fine words writ large on Ms. Liberty’s statue,

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me”

and just before the iceberg slips from view to melt and the commentary tells us we are watching the last of a species a little child watching asks “Father, mother what will happen to them?” and are told “Well, I don’t know, I guess they may die” and all the children of the world begin to cry as one.

But then from somewhere in the crowd a voice cries out,

Wait, wait, they are us and we them”

and a shout goes up and someone lands an anchor on the ice, halts it and it is hauled in, now saved and perhaps we begin our slow climb back to a better humanity.

But its just a story, and I won’t repeat it.

There are the drones that intend to pick off terrorists but sometimes miss and claim the lives of the innocent neighbours next door, the brave hunters who at their pleasure pick off the few remaining wolves left in the Western world , an entirely fair contest of course, one side happy to employ their little guns and bullets and those naughty little traps to hold them oh so gently before they are ‘relieved’ of their breath, whilst on the other side, those devil in disguise creatures that have Satan granted gifts of stealth and wisdom, four legs of course and the awful habit of claiming the odd cow or deer in order to feed their ‘families’ and to play their part as a keystone predator in an ecosystem which is part of a whole. An entirely fair contest wouldn’t you agree; teeth against lead.

But no sir, I’m not willing to comment, I would not dream of it.

And finally, you’ll be glad to hear, I am not going to mention the human beings that wound each other in anger and wrath, rage, jealousy, or for gain and greed and I will not talk of the little children who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and will never live to see both our indiscretions that we may learn from and our highest moments that come to fruition and then will never get a chance to ‘follow their bliss’ and add their beauty and spirit to the sum total of the consciousness of the human race.

As much and as great a loss as is their life to those who bore them and raised them, every time a child dies prematurely in an act of violence, it is what that child may have grown to be, there is the loss to humanity. Maybe an Einstein vanishes, perhaps a Beethoven, perhaps a humble girl or guy who simply grows and gives back to his community. A local hero. Who knows, perhaps a future mother who may give birth to a president or a king who will sense our precarious situation and arouse the rest of the world into action that will arrest us and then entice us and begin a dance that leads us to a higher consciousness and we finally come to terms with who and what we are. Well, perhaps.

But, as I say, I absolutely refuse to talk about any of this stuff, I’m not even going to go there………

There is more, too much more and the size and scale of these difficulties bearing down on us are on a scale so huge as to be sometimes truly overwhelming and in the end the overload of information can become so great that I think that most of us, if not burying our head in the sand, tries to file it away or put it to one side, not because we are inhuman or unfeeling, but perhaps because we feel it too much and yet our lack of empowerment at being able to do something about it is so great, we simply go back to what we know. Living. Living for today, for now and someone somewhere will solve the problems for us, or not. We live on in the hope for a better tomorrow, for us and for our children.

I suppose we think ourselves so small as to not be effective in being able to confront these frightening situations and threats and even when on those occasions we are able to mass support and make a difference, the rate of change we are able to make barely seems to scratch the surface of the huge rock that is rolling downhill and is seemingly powered by forces that we know not where they truly lie nor how we can begin to arrest it.

Never mind that actually, we need to get our shoulders in front of the rock to slow it down, we find ourselves riding it like a circus performer who balances on a large ball, appearing to be in total control, but when we load the performer with more and more trappings, it’s only a matter of time before he comes crashing down and the ball remains, either to roll under its own momentum or fatally, to come to a stop. But then many of us play out our daily lives like Sisyphus, compelled to push a rock up hill every day, seemingly for no purpose, only for it to roll down under its own steam and we repeat the whole process again and again and should we fail, there is someone else who will replace us without much hesitation.

Sometimes, often, perhaps, one wonders what all this pushing and shoving and chasing and grunting and effort is for. I suppose we have to step outside of ourselves for a while and try to take a longer and more expansive view at who we are. But where to find this view?

Imagine a travelling spaceman, …OK please bear with me…..had developed an eyesight which was only able to see things as energy, not unlike an infra-red sensor detects heat, and he approached our planet and stayed in orbit long enough, he would over a period of time, see the interwoven, intertwined systems that have evolved naturally and the one our industrialised society had developed this last 200 years or so. What he would see if you could strip away all else, are solitary creatures and groups of living things, each one pursuing that which keeps them alive, energy. He would see billions of energy ‘cells’ roaming and chasing all over the world and un-seen to him they would be exchanging ideas, currency, bullets, language, faith, but to his eyes, in film terms that is just the text, the sub-text is that we do it to gain energy that allows us to live, longer now than ever, and to raise our children, and to do all that we do. Be alive.

Animals and plants have been doing this ad infinitum, except they have ‘learned’ to become part of the natural cycle of life, living lives that have a circular form, they have a built in recycling systems that, if left alone will take care of itself and life flourishes. Maybe once as monkeys we too were happy to fit in with an eco system, but someone or something granted us a power to step outside of the box, learn to think, expand our consciousness, and come up with a wonderful system of living that raises our whole being, but by virtue of its very methods, drives us all down a path which is linear, ploughing a deep unstoppable furrow that casts aside that which we regard as waste or by products. We have created an energy system that is out stripping the ability of the planet to soak up our indiscretions fast enough to keep a balance or equilibrium. I can only imagine that our alien friend would see energy transferring from one or more animal and plant to another in an act of giving that replenishes itself and appears to be a closed and complete system, but he would see that our own modern systems has no similar structure and our energy goes to waste and lies dormant and wasteful in the earth, sea an sky, and lies waste too in our own consciousness. And we know it and detest that part of us which we go along with for it gives us the lives we so cherish. A conundrum indeed.

However, our rise to the top of the energy chain is seen by some to be the active act of Nature giving birth to a consciousness of the planet, meaning we ourselves are the living breathing self of this large round thriving ball of life. If the earth were a human being, then we are the brain and the consciousness of that body, able to play a huge and distinct part in the governing of that body, for better or for worse and we know that the brain working in order and with creativity, empathy and sympathy can do wonderful things and then this past few weeks we see what happens when brains work in a manner not in accord with those human qualities and we can do untold harm and suffering.

Human beings the consciousness of the planet? Is he serious?

It may not be new thinking or perhaps you never thought of us in that way and yet a few human beings have had the privilege of being able to look down on our Earth from space a little like that imaginary alien and see ourselves for what we are.

Neil Armstrong and the guys who went to the Moon.

Go back to those late sixties and early seventies and the photographs of earth form space and consider their thoughts and comments on what they saw as they mused over their home and the reality of our existence and how fragile it is. They did not see countries and boundaries, they saw a planet whole and as one. Now with the advancement of the Internet, we can perhaps connect with that thought and see what they saw and we can now think and talk and discuss and we can come together in a manner and speed that was never previously possible and if you imagine all these connections as similar to the wiring in the brain of our own bodies, it is not a big leap to see from space this vast web of internet connections as a brain or consciousness of our planet , with that same ability to alter it in ways for good or for bad.

We have a consciousness of our own and we have a collective consciousness that is real, functioning and immensely powerful. We have only to recognise this and perhaps there we have a wilful means of at least making change possible. Everything around us began with a thought, then that thought was translated into action, yes. But it is the thought that counts. Without ideas, no action. We have the makings of a machine that can undercut governments of all persuasions, global corporations, financial institutions and though we cannot direct the play entirely, we can play a part in it.

It’s hard to chose the moral high ground. I would not wish to offer advice. There are no simple solutions, particularly in a world that has seen the emphasis put on the independence of the individual and his or her right to pursue that most elusive of qualities; happiness. Man was born to spread his wings and inhabit the planet, it is our nature to do this, whatever the eventual outcome of our existence. But surely now it is time to take the next step, the next leap forward in our evolution, a change of consciousness.

I remember as a small boy, just about my pre-teens, my father, for some reason, brought home an air pistol. It fired metal pellets and darts that would hit a target and stick in the timber they were pinned to. I suppose that some boys go through devilish times and wish to test the boundaries of what they can do. I think I can remember this time, I think it was a willingness to experience doing something wilful and not necessarily desirable, to test whoever and whatever was out there and see what consequences would come about from these actions. I think boys explore ‘badness’ and we test the limits from an early age. I remember loading the air pistol up with pellets and hiding in a den a short distance away from small sparrows landing close by to peck at the bread I had thrown out. I aimed and fired the birds. Did I hit them. Well, they all flew away, maybe I was a bad shot. I hope so. I remember too, deliberately surrounding ants with boiling water and I guess a few died. It was like discovering a power, perhaps the beginnings of choice, good versus evil. I don’t know. Nothing too serious you may say, not worthy perhaps of a thunderbolt striking a young boy down or a visit to a confession from a priest. Though in many cultures I can imagine the same boy being instructed in his waywardness and being taught the consequences of his actions. I never went on to shoot , stab or even be physical with anyone or anything. But what I do remember is my father digging over the garden to plant potatoes and other plants, his attempt to save money. But as he dug I would notice that ants and bugs and such would get caught up in this minor maelstrom in the earth and that some would die, get injured. Not something most would contemplate for too long, its just the natural order of things, it’s just the way things are.

But therein lies a difference between my actions and my fathers. As Wendell Berry said in his Jefferson Lecture this year “It all turns on affection”

Man lives by killing, as do many species and yes I know that that idea in itself is changing with many people moving away from meat, but this is not a treatise on meat versus vegetarianism. Man lives by killing and there is a sense of guilt connected with that. There is a kind of covenant between the animal world and the human world and within the animal world too. The animal gives its life willingly with the understanding that its life transcends its physical entity and will be returned to the soil or to the mother through some ritual of restoration.

There is a reverence a respect, but we have largely become disconnected from these rituals. Killing is not simply slaughter. Eating is not just consumption. Our work is not just a task. Our relationships are not just convenience. Our children are not just additions to the family. Our purchase of goods is not just one-up-man-ship. Our minds are not just machines. Our hearts are not just pumps. Our emotions are not just feelings, they are us.

We have transformed portions of our lives from a ‘thou’ into an ‘it’. The ego that sees a thou is not the same ego that sees an it. I wantonly killed the ants. My father killed the ants yes, but the digging and turning of the soil was a ritual. The planting of the seeds was a ritual. The care of the seeds into food was a ritual. The gathering in was a ritual. The food on the table was a ritual, and so the circle was complete.

And so must we now not re apply these principles to our lives, our whole lives and treat all with reverence and as a thou not an it? We have the capacity for change but our will is seen to be lacking, often. The vestiges of our ‘monkey’ brain still clings on to basic desires and ways of acting that impels us towards systems of living that insist we must compete more than co operate and frankly, it may be killing us. It is not that we do not possess a caring nature, a generous and empathetic side, but somewhere in our lives we have allowed these 200 year old systems to be the new Gods we worship, all becomes an it not a thou.

Having fun (and working and life itself) doesn’t mean turning playing fields (or workplaces, business) into battlefields. It’s remarkable, when you stop to think about it, that the way we teach our kids to have a good time is to play highly structured games in which one individual or team must defeat another.

 

Consider one of the first games our children learn to play: musical chairs. Take away one chair and one child in each round until one smug winner is seated and everyone else has been excluded from play. You know that sour birthday party scene; the needle is lifted from the record and someone else is transformed into a loser, forced to sit out the rest of the game with the other unhappy kids on the side. That’s how children learn to have fun in the world.

 

Terry Orlick, a Canadian expert on games, suggests changing the goal of musical chairs so children are asked to fit on a diminishing number of seats. At the end, seven or eight giggling, happy kids are trying to squish on a single chair. Everyone has fun and there are no winners or losers.

 

What’s true of musical chairs is true of all recreation (life); with a little ingenuity, we can devise games (lives) in which the obstacle is something intrinsic to the task itself rather than another person or team.

But how to change?

A butterfly in metamorphosis.

It goes like this: A caterpillar crunches its way through its ecosystem, cutting a swath of destruction by eating as much as hundreds of times its weight in a day, until it is too bloated to continue and hangs itself up, its skin then hardening into a chrysalis.

Inside this chrysalis, deep in the caterpillar’s body, tiny things biologists call ‘imaginal disks’ begin to form. Not recognizing the newcomers, the caterpillar’s immune system snuffs them as they arise. But they keep coming faster and faster, then linking up with each other.

Eventually the caterpillar’s immune system fails from the stress and the disks become imaginal cells that build the butterfly by feeding on the soupy meltdown of the caterpillar’s body.

It took a long time for biologists to understand the reason for the immune system attack on the incipient butterfly cells, but eventually they discovered that the butterfly has its own unique genome, carried by the caterpillar, inherited from long ago in evolution, yet not part of it as such (Margulis & Sagan, Acquiring Genomes 2002).

If we see ourselves as imaginal discs working to build the butterfly of a better world, we will understand that we are launching a new ‘genome’ of values and practices to replace that of the current unsustainable system. We will also see how important it is to link with each other in the effort, to recognize how many different kinds of imaginal cells it will take to build a butterfly with all its capabilities and colors.

Normally I’m against big things. I think the world is going to be saved by millions of small things. Too many things can go wrong when they get big.” – Pete Seeger.

Maybe in the end our changes come from inside, inside ourselves and if enough of us change in the same way then the forces overwhelming us cannot resist and change becomes inevitable.

I recently watched the film “American Beauty”, some years after its release. Its a black comedy about a dysfunctional family and within it the husband (Kevin Spacey) transforms himself, leaves his former self behind and just for a short time begins to see beauty in all the madness of his life. A motif for the film which shows up here and there is a small plastic bag caught up in a little ‘dust devil’, a swirling wind that plays with the bag as it floats and spins and twirls. Like us it moves at the behest of bigger forces, but there is beauty in our lives and like the butterflies transformation it comes from inside ourselves and the beauty of our change is seen by others and may infect change on them too. Life reminds us of beauty all the time in the smallest of ways.

Driving back from a long hard day at work I saw a blackness in the sky, a dark swirling mass sweeping over the factories to my right. Starlings, swooping in ever-changing shape-shifting flight and I couldn’t take my eyes from them. They had a hypnotising effect and I just drove slowly by and let myself be amazed and be in wonder.

The day after, instead of walking from my place of work to a café after getting off a bus, I stood for a few seconds and waited. I waited and wondered. I was rewarded. The bus I had got off passed by, and the extraordinarily beautiful woman that had got on was there and she saw me looking at her (we have encountered each other several times previous, no words though) and she responded with a smile. I was hypnotised again, by beauty, though this time it was my head that swirled and swooped and I was amazed and in wonder again.

Simple beauty. A smile.

We place so much emphasis on the symptoms of ourselves and our society, surely now we must learn to approach the cause of our ills and ‘teach our children well’.

So how and where to begin. Well there are many paths and we each must make our own and find our own way home. Here is one path that leads to many.

Many years ago in Thailand, there was a temple that was called ‘The Temple of the Golden Buddha’ and there was a huge statue of a Golden Buddha there.

Word came to the village and the monastery that an army from neighbouring country was about to invade.

And so they came up with the brilliant idea to cover the Golden Buddha, which is quite large, with mud and concrete so that basically it looked like a stone Buddha and the army would perceive no value in it.

And sure enough the army rolled in with its caissons and weapons and as they passed by the monastery, they saw nothing but a big stone Buddha and they had no reason to plunder it.

Well, years passed by because the army continued to occupy, until there was a time when no one in the monastery and no one in the village remembered that the Buddha was golden.

Then one day, a young monk was sitting underneath the Buddha meditating and as he got up off his knees a little piece of the concrete happened to crack and fall off the Buddha and the young monk saw something shiny underneath.

He realised that there was gold under the concrete and so he ran to his fellow monks and said “The Buddha is golden, the Buddha is golden!”.

They all came out and realised he was telling the truth and so they took their picks and hammers and began chipping away and eventually they unearthed the Golden Buddha

Now, what is the metaphor here?

The metaphor is that each of us is golden by nature, we are born golden, we were born high, we were born knowing, we were born connected to our bliss, we were born knowing the truth, we born knowing everything every great spiritual master has ever said, we are at one with the Christ, with the Buddha, everyone.

But then, we went to school and in life too they said you have to dress like this and this is what boys do, this is what girls do, this is what black people do, this is what white people do and on and on and on.

And so we develop a casing of stone and concrete over the Buddha to a point at a young age, maybe 4, 5, 6 or 7 where we BELIEVE that we are the stone Buddha not the Golden One.

And then something comes along that cracks open our casing, maybe its a serious injury or illness, a divorce, a financial crisis, a governmental change, something that really scares us and bugs us and knocks off a piece of our armour and only in that moment of the armour being knocked off do you get to look inside and see the gold.

And let me tell you friend, that the moment you see that gold, the armour and the concrete will never satisfy you and at that point you truly answer the hero’s adventure, and all you want to do for the rest of your life is pick away the stone because the gold is so much more fun.”

Happy New Year

(“Golden Buddha” story taken verbatim from the DVD “Finding Joe” as told by Alan Cohen.)

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For each December

‘Ghost hunting’

I went back.

I went back to Merseyside after I had been there just four weeks ago. Then, I met friends from home and abroad, America and we had taken the Beatles Tours, visited the Beatles museums and soaked up some of Liverpool’s welcome, character and wit and all things Beatles.

Even though I was brought up with the sound of the ‘Fab Four’, I had no real appreciation of who they were as people, boys and men, of their struggles, their pain and the hows the whys and the wherefores of how they got from A to B. All of that either got buried or suppressed at the time and things were so new back then, nobody had ever really trod this path before, not under the glare of such publicity and fame and this was the era when the little box in the corner of the room suddenly took on enormous power and its value, if that is the correct term, was quickly being realised by those in power, politics and entertainment. These were uncharted waters for everyone, ‘The Beatles’ included.

Even now I was still locked into my childhood memories of them, they were….well, they were ‘The Beatles’ werent they? They were a part of my life, though not having a record player at home until the early seventies, I missed out on the 1967 to 1970 period of their music, save what I heard on the radio or saw on the TV and as a shy Grammar school teenager with anxious angts and fears and feeling that somehow all this ‘all you need is love stuff’, was alternately being boo-hoo’d by the stiff upper lip of England and yet somehow planting a seed there in my mind, I had some catching up to do later. Soon I was off into Led Zeppelin and ‘Yes-land’ and I only caught up with them in the eighties with re-releases and then the first CD I bought, when that format became available, was ‘Sgt. Pepper’.

Something died in me when John Lennon was shot. An innocence maybe and a confusion of thoughts that made me wonder how this world worked, what forces were at work, dark and mysterious. I think that was the over-riding feeling, confusion. I do not wish to trivialise Lennon’s murder, but perhaps his death was somehow symbolic of the term that has become known as a ‘black swan’, a seemingly random act that we never accounted for, was not preventable within the realms of our own limited thought processes and then we try to rationalise it afterwards, to no avail. Perhaps his death was symbolic of all the powerlessness we feel in our own lives and that ultimately we have very little control over them. John sang it better, ‘Life is what happen to you when you’re busy making other plans’.

So I went back looking for something, but I didn’t know what.

I went back because I forgot my manners, I knew that much. I forgot to say thank you. So, a little chastened, I went back on my own to retrace my steps.

I went back looking for ghosts too, ghosts past and present.

 

When I was there last, she, Liverpool, was good to me. She wasn’t at all shy, she opened up her streets and avenues and all the places of the past which to me were once secret, all the nooks and cranny’s, the hiding places, the gates and green gardens and the old houses now showing their age, their windows hanging heavy like sad eyes, the years of chimney smoke and soot and industrial sweat running like black eye-liner that streaks down the brickwork with the tears of laughter and sadness that were shed in lives lived long and short.

I drove down Penny Lane where people and cars now rush everywhere, though my eyes saw only sepia-coloured cars that like me were running on nostalgia and in slow motion too, except the one that took her, Julia, John Lennon’s mother away, when she was only 44 and he was just 17. They had only just re-connected after being separated during the course of a long running family dispute and separation and according to Paul McCartney, Lennon went through hell during his childhood and teenage years. Perhaps you are like me and all you know is their music and had little idea how death and sadness and particularly Julia’s death haunted John throughout his life and perhaps when you begin to know someone a little better it helps you to understand the man and his music.

I look at the photographs of my last visit and I see friends there who have come and gone, not physically but as visitors, fleeting glimpses of moments captured by light and lens, our intimate actions caught up in the web of life, all of us just going with the swing of things, playing our own tunes but putting together a song that somehow played out with harmony. We somehow dovetailed our minds with each other without rehearsals, save those who travel together frequently and who know the ways of each other a perhaps a little.

Like Lennon and McCartney, who had different hearts, but inhabited the same soul, their seemingly opposing take on life could find a compromise. McCartney tells of writing a song ‘Its getting better’ for the ‘Sgt. Pepper’ album and he’s singing the line ‘I have to admit it’s getting better, it’s getting better all the time’, a euphoric sound and Lennon just cut straight in with ‘It couldn’t get much worse’, no doubt with a wry smile on his face. But they kept it in and so it went on, song after song, playing their hearts and minds and sensitivities against each other. They had the ‘nouse’ to realise what they had not only in their similarities, but also in their differences and McCartney says that at one time they had a run where they wrote maybe 300 songs together and every time without exception when they sat down to write, they never dried, a song always came out. If that’s not a kind of love, I’d like to know what is. Well, we too on our brief visit brought our different instruments, guitar, bass, drums and our different souls and somehow we knitted together memories, and what are memories really but ghosts that come back to haunt us, please us, excite us, even worry and trouble us and they keep coming back to us like one of those songs that sticks in your head, the kind you wake up in the morning with and it stays with you all day. ‘Ear-worms’ they call them. They are so damned annoying, but maybe they are a clue to our moods and feelings and we should let they play out until they are ready to go. I’m not sure you can kill a ghost, only allow it to come and go, inhabit you for a while and let it leave in its own good time.

It was as they say, back then pre-Beatles, when they and I and some of you were kids, a different age. Television sets were the size and shape of a child’s toy with imitation brown wood and smelled of hot as the valves heated up and warmed the plastic until it finally flickered into life with foggy pictures. My parents cat used to sleep on top of their TV and fell off many times too. You could watch her as she slowly slid off and then wandered the room in a daze for a few seconds, though the falls never completely put her off . The radio or wireless, had few stations to tune into that were in any way ‘rock and roll’, save Radio Luxembourg or Caroline, if you could tune in under the bedclothes and the BBC Light Programme would play nothing more racy than Doris Day and ‘Move over darling’ (although it’s a damn sexy song!). Life was between the times, in between the desolation of the war and the new age to come, the pace of life was slower, but the heartbeat of emotions that raced and pounded through the war-torn streets could be no less volatile and full of potential harm and destructiveness as well as urging those inflicted with a desire to move on, get out, find a better way. The roles of nature and nurture played out their parts as they would, kindly or not and the counselling of the human spirit was not always in abundance. You just ‘got on’ with life and there were rules to be obeyed, but Lennon was compelled to follow another path; the one least trodden. Elvis saw to that.

Much was still in short supply in those austere nineteen fifties and sixties, but if the ground rules told you what you shouldn’t or couldn’t do, the sky was full of imagination, space and time in which to lose yourself. There was time to dream. When we were here last, taking the Magical Mystery Tour, we spent time chasing dreams and shadows and the shadows of those dreams, shadows of lives burnt and etched into the walls where they leant, smoked and chatted up girls, shadows where they once lay on green grass, idling and dreaming the days away, shadows where once they sat playing and singing, laughing and crying, feeling at once vulnerable and yet invincible. Yeah, yeah, yeah, we spent all that afternoon chasing shadows and chasing ghosts, but there was still life in these ghosts, some ghosts just won’t go away, nor should they.

So she showed me her mind and her imagination and she showed me that even here in all the dust and the dirt and the grime the sounds and seeds of life could thrive and grow and their blossom could spread far and wide. The little black notes that Lennon and McCartney conjured up floated out of the chimneys of their houses like musical dots of smoke then drifted down the lanes and fields and were drawn up into the clouds, turning the mourning grey Liverpool skies into rising white mushroom summer clouds which grew heavy with sound and when they could no longer carry that weight, the notes fell down as rain, down onto the dirty old town and ran into the gutters and streams and then into her, ‘The Mersey’ and from there they bobbed across the oceans to distant shores where they too would drink them in and get drunk on this new consciousness  It rained when I was there last, more rain than anyone could ever remember. It poured down with music too, their music reigned o’er us and now whenever it rains, I always hear them sing, the notes hitting pavements and sheds and roofs and cars and hats and brolly’s, each strike sounding a note to a familiar tune. I heard them on this day too as the sun rose on my way up to Liverpool and Georges sweet acoustic notes heralded the birth of a bright new day. Ghostly tunes play all around us, wafting in and out of our minds. Ghosts never laid to rest.

Today, there was no rain, only Sun and o how she shone this day.

I retraced my steps in golden sunlight, George’s ‘Sun-song’ ever in my ear, then I was accompanied by the clanging chords that struck like an unwelcome alarm clock after a hard days night, chords that shouted ‘Lennon!’, weaving in and out of the Corinthian columns of St. Georges Town Hall. I made my way down to Pier Head and joined the queue for the Ferry cross the Mersey, the Mersey that never forgets its history and looks after its own. Scousers and visitors queued and waited for the lumbering ferry as it manoeuvred alongside the quayside, the skipper high in his nest edging her closer until the ropes secured her and she bellowed a blast of smoke in relief, like a drag on a cigarette after sex. We climbed aboard and she chugged and chopped across the river and I caught a reflection of the City in the murky Mersey waters, a reflection that seemed to mirror in minor her soul sister city, New York, to where thousands of hopeful scouse ‘sailors’ set forth and came to embrace Miss Liberty and the eternal words of succour and comfort, as they nestled safely into her harbour and her arms,

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”,

never knowing that years later their ghosts would be followed by the living, breathing, singing foursome who would revive the descendants of those huddled masses with songs to live and die for, exporting back to them a bright new music for a brand new age and surprising me, given the conections that are so bound up between New York and Liverpool, that these two cities of song have never become ‘twin cities’.

Down and out we went, passing ancient monuments of the past, the Stanley Dock Tobacco Warehouse, still bigger than any brick-built warehouse in the world and still standing, but now defiantly empty and a literal echo of a by-gone age, as if you listened you could still hear the shouts and noises of the workers bellowing from inside. Here on the docks were ghosts of stevedore’s and longshoremen and of the long dead men and then down we churned towards the open sea, where the whirling arms of modern windmills seemed to generate and hasten down a tear-drop inducing wind as we all braced ourselves against the gale that blew in from the Emerald Isle across the Irish Sea, the same wind that years before blew in the Lennon’s and the McCartney’s.

We gasped into port on the other side, taking on the new, disgorging the old and whilst we waited the pre-recorded people with fog-horned voices gave us a history lesson over the ships half-muffled sound system. A history of how New Brighton at the tip of the Mersey was once home to smugglers and wreckers and then became a seaside resort of huge proportions serving Liverpool and Lancashire before declining after the Second World War, but which now is taking on a new face and presenting herself with a fresh look. Perhaps even a ghost sometimes needs botox and a face lift.

Ghosts linger here in the architecture too, architecture that mixes the Victorian with the Art-Deco and then there’s the extraordinary looking monolith that is the air-inlet building near Seacombe, though it looked to me like some sort of ‘death-machine’ at first glance, a kind of huge crematorium, a futuristic temple where those near to passing are called to to be exhumed and puffed out into the air, a still silent re-circulator of people, when in fact its function is the opposite, to keep drivers alive in the tunnels that worm they way under the Mersey by gulping in huge globules of air and preventing drivers from suffocating. But no matter its benign purpose, my child’s eye still said it was scary looking!

We turned back towards home, the sun blinding off the Mersey, the seagulls providing a food-seeking fly-past, swooping and swapping positions with dive-bomb ease, adjusting to each gust of wind with a invisible flick of a wing, making us leaden footed humans look drunken and clumsy in the gale on our two-legged stilts. The wind was now drowning out all noise, a high-pitched siren of sound that moaned across the Mersey like the mouths of a million ghosts that sailed these waters past.

Chugging back to Pier Head a ghost of a song passed over our heads, “Ferry cross the Mersey” by Gerry and the Pacemakers, allowing us to wallow for a few seconds in the sixties when this City began to groan and tug itself out of its war torn past and find another export that was shipped back to the USA perhaps as a thank you for what she gave to it. In the Second World War Liverpool and Merseyside lost approximately 4000 souls during Hitler’s blitz. The Nazi’s were aware of the city’s importance for its connection with America with its docks and shipping facilities and it was the second most bombed place in England after London. The government kept the damage quiet for propaganda reasons and so as not to cause alarm and Liverpool handled 90 percent of the incoming goods from abroad and without these brave scourers, who knows what may have happened. It’s a strange kind of compliment that Hitler paid to the City that he gave so much attention to it as to want to demolish it.

As we came full circle the Liver Birds hoved into view and as the story goes, the female is looking out to sea, watching for the seaman to return safely home, whilst the male looks towards the City, making sure the pubs were open.

Walking off the ferry I passed one of the modern buildings that have sprung up these past years, this one too housing ghosts, a museum come film show centre with all things memorable that are connected to The Beatles, Elvis and Monroe, perhaps the three biggest icons of this past fifty years, apart from Diana of course, but then I went ghost-hunting there too in July 1997 and laid that one to rest too.

Statues, monuments and sculptures lined the promenade, ghosts of the past gone before us, sailors, singers and those who saved lives, all honoured and never to be forgotten.

I wandered up through the town and now the City had woken up this Saturday morning and its streets were heaving with shoppers and drinkers and eaters, mingling their accents with the tongue’s of back-packers and the ‘Fab Four’ hunters of the world, come to see the shrine where it all began, come to worship what is actually a humble temple. There’s no golden statues here, no eternally smiling Buddha’s, but they left their mark here and let the world know of their home town spirit and how it beats still in the heart of its people with their wit and humour and welcome.

There was one particular photograph that I had been looking for here too. A bus headed towards me at a junction and had to turn left, so it had to slow and I leant on a lamp-post and pressed the trigger to capture the destination blind that read ‘Liverpool ONE’, which will by the time the bus reaches its terminus, have vanished into ‘OUT OF SERVICE’, a ghostly invisible transformation that repeats and repeats, just like the music fans who arrive, haunt the City streets and then vanish into thin air.

At Lime Street Station I walk on up the hill and I wondered if The Royal Nelson Hotel where we stayed is chock-a-block today, well maybe tomorrow it will be, when the Merseyside football ‘Derby’ kicks-off and both teams try to live up to the ghosts of the past, the Shankly sides and the Dixie Dean days still haunting the terraces and dreams of the fans who never say die and who never will forget or be forgotten.

I walked back to the car and drove south of the city towards the suburbs, Woolton, where I have someone to find, one ghost to exorcise today. I have maps and I follow them, but I go round and around in circles, so I follow my instinct and I feel like I am close and then there on the opposite side of the dual-carriageway it is, Allerton Cemetery. I can’t cross over the grass verge down the middle and there’s no openings just here and as I drive on looking for a turning I stumble onto Woolton ‘village’. The streets are narrow here and as I am looking around I think, was that what I think I saw?….yes it was…on the right…”Quarry Bank Road”….maybe…it flashed by so quick, Quarry Bank Road, ‘The Quarrymen’, little streets, little lanes and names that eventually circled the world. They mined their past and their history, digging out gold and jewels for us to share and brighten our dull days.

I find a flower shop and buy three small bunches and head back down the road and then turn into Allerton Cemetery. It’s huge and there’s a road running through it, but really its a river running through it, a river of laughter, memories and tears. I circle a chapel half-way in and pull over. There’s a notice board that details the Cemetery in sections. The section I want is right down the bottom end as far away from the entrance as you can get. I drive there.

And here it is. The plot. It’s here, she’s here, somewhere.

This part of the cemetery has a kind of isolation about it, perhaps because its the last section and after that there’s nothing but grassland until 150 yards where there’s a road running across the edge, but the sound of traffic is barely audible, as if respectfully quiet. The plot feels like an island here, as if it’s cut off from the main part of this huge resting place, an oasis of emotions that’s been planted here to grow and bloom, somewhere fruitful for ghosts to wander around. There’s a mixture of life and death here in this nether-world as many of the graves are decorated with colour and momento’s of all types depending on their lives and loves. It’s as if those living are trying to keep their loved ones alive, as if offering some kind of resuscitation in the form of remembrance, trying to keep the air alive with their persona. They are gone, but not gone, not yet, they still have a little life left in them and their spirit and soul are hovering here, ghosts waiting for us to finally let them go and do whatever ghosts have to do.

I step out out the car, with flowers a card and a photograph of her grave and though its an old photograph and all she had then was a wooden cross, luckily the grave next to hers is there in the picture and I can see the shape and colour of it and the names too and so if I can find that one, I can find hers. I don’t know why but I feel nervous about doing this. Is it pretentious? Am I intruding into private grief? Walking over the buried bones of peoples loved ones may seem odd to some people, strange, ghoulish even, but they are gone, aren’t they? Leave them be, there’s nothing you can do for them. Dead is dead after all, isn’t it? I wasn’t sure.

I decide to tip-toe over the grass, treading lightly so as not to disturb them.

I step onto the grass and there is a tree on the edge of the plot that’s decorated with ribbons that are bound and twisted into wreath-like shapes, memento’s for the dead and as I step onto the grass someone whispers hello. Hello in a shrill but gentle voice, a welcoming voice, as if its OK to be here, to do this and that I am welcome and not intruding. I feel lifted now and I know I will find her. There’s that sound again and the wind that whistled down the Mersey has followed me here, but now it has died down to a breeze and it’s this breeze which circles the tree, spinning the wind chimes hanging there, tinkling and twinkling her greeting again.

Hello”.

I try a logical way of finding her, walking over to the far side of the plot and slowly trawling past each grave one row at a time, looking for her name, but looking for the grave next door as well. Five minutes pass and the Sun is still good today, still shining but slowly beginning to sink, making the breeze just a little more chill across the fading October sky.

And then.

The next door neighbour is here, I think. I double check with the old photograph and the names match, but to the right there is no wooden cross now, but an upright grey stone about 18 inches high with names etched on it, Mummy; John; Victoria; Julia; Jackie in descending order. I look at the photograph again and then look back at the one in front of me. I’ve found it, I’ve found them, found her. 

In the photograph there is a stone cat by the grave and it’s still there, so I guess, I hope, this is the right one. Now I can do what I have come to do and I feel happy and relieved that I can say what needs to be said.

To say thank you. Thank you to Julia, John’s mother.

Why John? Well there were three others in the band, as you may have gathered and they all played their part, in fact there were many who played their parts, band members who came and went, managers, wives and girlfriends, engineers and arrangers, the list is a long and winding road. But in the beginning it was John’s band, Johns force of will and desire that drove him and them on to reach the ‘toppermost of the poppermost’ and it was his mothers spirit and love of music and musical ability that he seems to have inherited and that she showed him during their short time together. So this journey was like a return to the source, the well spring from which they arose, a return to where it all began, the acorn that grew into the mighty oak.

I unwrapped the little bunch of flowers and I see that there is an empty stone or metal pot next to the grave and so that’s where they will go, but first I sit down a few yards away and lean against another grave, hoping whoever it is won’t mind and there I sit and I write inside the card the last line of lyrics from The Beatles song “The End”.

And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make”.

On the opposite side of the card I write the names of those who came to visit Liverpool this Autumn 2012 from near and far and then tuck the card into a plastic wallet so it may keep a while, protected a little from the weather. I place the card under the stone pot and put the flowers in the pot and stand back and take photos and then sit down on a bench under the whispering tree. I sit not really to think, not to think at all actually, just to be, just to let it be.

As I am sitting a car draws up, a young lady gets out, walks to a grave nearby, tends the flowers, stays for a few minutes then drives off. Another car draws up, three people get out and go to the grave about ten yards away that is festooned with colour and lights and football memorabilia. “Welcome to my garden”, says a little plaque on the grave. They each tidy things, maybe say a few words I cannot hear and then as each one walks away they kiss their fingertips and touch the wooden cross at the head of the grave.

I will never know whether it was the now chill wind or the emotions of that moment, but looking on Julia’s grave, a few tears came and I left them where they fell on the ground, helping the grass to grow. I take out the two remaining bunches of flowers and take one over to the highly decorated grave where the family just were and leave one bunch there and take the other to the grave where the young lady was. It seemed fitting.

I go back to the car, turn it around and leave this forever never-never land where souls all but sleep, knowing that even if some arrived here too soon, everyone who is here is at peace and as George said, “All things must pass”. And I think so too.

I came here looking for ghosts, but realised that although her bones may lie here, Julia does live on and it was her, who was born with the egg that became John, who sang the songs that he heard and then he too gave his songs to us and so the circle is complete once more as we too pass them on for our children and we then become ghosts to be let go of one day to.

I suppose that here on this bright October day, with the Sun going down and casting shadows from the gravestones over the still lush green grass that will soon lie fallow until spring comes full circle until it rises again, I suppose that perhaps I had a insight into something a little more clearly than I had seen it before. Not ghosts.

 

A little glimpse of immortality.

 

A little boy once said to his dying Grandmother, “Grandma, is it true that I won’t see you again when you go away?”

Grandma said, “Death is like a ship sailing away towards the horizon. There’s a moment when it disappears. But just because you can’t see it any more doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist”.

 

My ghost-hunting was over. I came looking for ghosts and found them humming, singing and living and breathing inside of me.

 

 

 

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