Sunday, 30 November 2008

The Brocken Spectre 2, or A Poem for Billo, who is still away

Against Biography
by William Bronk

We came to where the trees, if there were trees,
say, a little group of them, or a house
maybe, something there, whatever it was,
a man standing, someone, it would be clear
enough, sharp at the edges but everything else
was blurred, all running together or else
moving - sideways, back and forth- or the scale
was wrong, some of the things close by
were smaller than those set further back, so that though
we saw something, and saw it plain enough
we saw it nowhere, there wasn't any place
for it to be, or any place for us.
We wandered. Not quite aimless. Man here, though,
would live without biography: it needs
a time and place: there isn't any: who
could say, not smiling, me and my world
or so and so and his time, and stage a play
clothed properly in front of sets,
and believe that this made time and place of the world?

No, we have come too far for that belief
and saw ourselves as ghost against the real,
and time and place as ghosts; there is the real.
It is there. Where we are: nowhere. It is there.

The Brocken Spectre

Frost at dawn, as I walked back early over the high fields with the dogs. To the west, deep banks of fog lay darkly over the sea, mist drifting along the Sea Brows, veiling the pines. To the east, the sun rose over the Skiddaw fells. Then I saw myself! A huge shadow on the sea. I waved the dogs' stick, and bright splinters of light spilled out from the moving shadow.
I've never witnessed this phenomenon before. This is the Wikipaedia account:
A Brocken spectre (German Brockengespenst), also called Brocken bow or mountain spectre is the apparently enormously magnified shadow of an observer, cast upon the upper surfaces of clouds opposite the sun. The phenomenon can appear on any misty mountainside or cloud bank, or even from an aeroplane, but the frequent fogs and low-altitude accessibility of the Brocken, a peak in the Harz Mountains in Germany, have created a local legend from which the phenomenon draws its name. The Brocken spectre was observed and described by Johann Silberschlag in 1780, and has since been recorded often in literature about the region.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008


There was a double rainbow on the morning of my birthday.
It was very uplifting. I wondered if it was a sign - or something.
The weather was classic rainbow weather, rain falling through sun, light flashing on the streaming tiles of the houses. The light and colour on the sea were magical. Then the light and the colours faded back to slate-grey, clouds covered the sun, the sea became white-flecked and choppy.

Browning said:'The best is yet to be.' I wonder about that.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Seven Years in Tibet (revisited)

I’ve just been re-reading this book, which I read for the first time last year. It still made a profound impression on me and I felt curious to find out more about Heinrich Herrer. As he didn't die until 2006, aged, I think, 93, there are obituaries and also plenty of biographical material about him on the Internet.

The publication of the book, in fact, brought him much acclaim both as a travel writer and mountaineer but also prompted people to investigate his past. As a very young man he had been a member of the SS but always averred that it was only because he was thereby offered the chance to become a ski instructor and trainer and that he had no political or ideological commitment to the organistation or the Nazi party.

All this has been well chewed over, especially by anti-Nazi propagandists who can get extremely worked up about people of Herrer's background. Added to that, he became a close friend of the Dalai Lama during his time in Tibet, a friendship which continued and was cemented suring the latter's exile. The fact that the Dalai Lama apparently had friends and supporters among ex-Nazis added fuel to the fire although some might think that the Dalai Lama would welcome friends of any persuasion. In the end I felt that the question of Herrer's past and suspected political leanings didn't detract from the achievement which the book represents.

When I'd finished the book, I began to think more about Peter Aufschnaiter, who is something of a shadowy figure in Herrer's narrative. (He's shown in the accompanying photo, taken while he was serving in the War.) He was Herrer's co-escapee from Derha Dun prison and his companion over the years of their escape and travels through Tibet to reach Lhasa. Resorting to the Internet again (of course), I found quite a bit of material about him. He was a very different character, more solitary and completely immersed in his work and his passionate calling as an explorer and mountaineer. For much of the time that he and Herrer were in Tibet together, Aufschnaiter lived outside Lhasa, working on various engineering projects for the government.

In 1951, Herrer left Lhasa and went straight to Nepal, whereas Aufschnaiter continued to travel around Tibet, exploring and mapping previously unknown areas and climbing. During this time he lived with local people in all the areas he visited, including with some nomadic tribes, thereby gaining a unique insight into their lives and customs. He left Tibet the following year, due to the Communist take-over, but only returned to Europe after twenty years absence.

Herrer achieved fame and recognition because of the publication of Seven Years in Tibet, in 1953, whereas Aufschnaiter published only some papers and articles during his life-time. On his death in the 70s, his friend Martin Brauen, of the Ethnological Museum, University of Zurich, compiled, collated and edited the voluminous notes and journals, and, importantly, photographs, which Aufschnaiter kept during his travels. These were published in 2002, by a small Bangkok publishing house specialising in Asian titles, under the title Peter Aufschnaiter's Eight Years in Tibet and I was able to buy it on-line.

This book is NOT the travel classic which Herrer's book is. But it IS a unique and gripping picture of life and times in Lhasa and the rest of Tibet before the Chinese invasion. It also reveals Aufschnaiter as a dedicated and passionate explorer and climber, and a meticulous recorder of all his observations and map-makings. There's a lot of technical detail about the mountains and general terrain, which can become a bit tedious for the non-explorer/mountaineer, but it's also full of fascinating observation of the people and life-styles he encounters in his travels. It's illustrated throughout by Aufschnaiter's wonderful photographs. The style and editing are rather choppy but I enjoyed it nonetheless and felt it enhanced and enlarged upon my reading of the Herrer account.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

The Priory Garden

Work in progress. David, the Man With The Pick-Axe, has cleared this south-facing border of nettles, brambles, rogue buddleias and much else. Jeanne and I have dug it out and, since this shot was taken, have spread around and dug in large quantities of donkey poo.

Sam has been ever-present, checking on progress but constantly interrupting labour by attempting to beguile us into chucking his ball around. Bren has been nothing but a pain: digging a hole in the lawn and chewing up his football so that it had to be taken away and hidden high up in the laburnum tree, which was good, as trying to climb up the tree kept him fully occupied for hours.

Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Savage Messiah by H.S.Ede

‘When I face the beauty of nature, I am no longer sensitive to art, but in the town I appreciate its myriad benefits—the more I go into the woods and the fields the more distrustful I become of art and wish all civilization to the devil; the more I wander about amidst filth and sweat the better I understand art and love it; the desire for it becomes my crying need.’ Henri Gaudier-Brzeska

J.S.Ede’s book is based largely on Henri’s letters, mainly those to Sophie Brzeska but including some to family and friends, which Ede obtained from Sophie’s estate after her death in 1925. Henri and Sophie’s intense and complex relationship, begun when he was eighteen and she over twice his age, must surely rank as one of the most interesting and enigmatic in the annals of human relationships. Their symbiotic interdependence was so complete that he ‘annexed’ her name to his own and thereafter was known as Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. In their relationship, ostensibly platonic, the roles of mother-and-child/brother-and sister/loving friends were played out endlessly, yet expressed, always, in the most passionately loving terms.

Henri’s letters detail his everyday concerns and activities, intimately interwoven with his work and artistic development. He and Sophie lived together and supported each other through periods of the direst poverty and deprivation. When they were apart, most often because of illness or, in Sophie’s case, the need to earn money, for example as a governess, they constantly exchanged letters although Sophie’s to Henri seem not to have survived.

Henri was killed in the trenches at the start of the First World War. Sophie never recovered from this loss and died in an asylum in 1925.

I haven’t seen Ken Russell’s 1972 film based on Ede’s book.
The picture is of a work by Henri: Ornamental Mask. Painted bronze. 1910.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

P.G.Wodehouse A Life by Robert McCrum

How ironic that the comic genius whose writings encapsulated, indeed immortalised, a particular vision of Edwardian England was fated to be exiled from his home country and to spend the last 35 years of his life abroad.

At the onset of the Second World War, Wodehouse was living in France as a tax exile. Being profoundly uninterested in world affairs and politics, he failed to realise the danger of staying where he was until it was too late. In 1940, aged 60, he was interned, first in Belgium, then in Poland, in Upper Silesia. (His comment on this was: 'If this is Upper Silesia, I dread to think what Lower Silesia is like.')

After a year he was released and persuaded by the Nazis to make a series of broadcasts - light, witty reflections on his internment and his fellow-internees - which were aimed at his American public but, of course, broadcast in England as well, where they were not well-received. He was branded a collaborationist, even a traitor, and as a result was never able to return to England where he continued to be in bad odour politically. None of this, of course, prevented his books and plays from being hugely popular both here, in America and, indeed, worldwide.
Belatedly, at age 93 he was knighted and died, aged 95, at his home in Long Island in 1975.

There are several possible interpretations of Wodehouse's motives for making the war-time broadcasts, the most feasible being that he was 'an innocent abroad'. He was a profoundly un-political person and would probably not have understood the impact that simply making broadcasts under the aeigis of the Nazis, however apparently innocuous the content, would have had in war-time Britain. All his life, Wodehouse was obsessed, and possessed, entirely by his writing and the proof of this single-minded dedication is in his vast output in the form of novels, short stories, essays and plays.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Blue Hills, or the Romantic Myth

Sometimes hills really ARE blue. These are not remembered, they're seen every day. You can even make a long journey to actually visit them. So, where does that leave memory and imagination? Well, if you travel to these distant hills, they don't look blue and there is nothing romantic about them. They are grey and rocky, covered in sheep and heather. But you can climb them, pant and sweat to the top-most cairn, stand and take in the panoramic view, echelons of hills and ranges stretching away endlessly to the west. Or turn to the east, and look back across the Firth to where you've come from, the blue and misty Lakeland fells standing sentinel on the horizon, mysterious and unattainable......

Thursday, 13 March 2008

The Primrose Path

Despite the recent storms and gales, I found primroses in bloom in Flimby woods today. That's early, for Cumbria. In my Cornish homeland, of course, they'll have been out in profusion for weeks now. These Northern plants are less prolific, more reticent, discreetly hiding beside the deepest, darkest paths, seen only by deer and rabbits - and by those who go searching for them. These sparse, hidden clumps are the modest evokers of all the springs I remember, primroses shining out from dark hollows, lining the edges of fields, carpeting the banks of streams. In the North, one learns to value such small living tokens of one's past.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Thursday, 14 February 2008

'The Idea of North' - Glenn Gould

From "The Idea of North": an Introduction

‘When I went to the North, I had no intention of writing about or of referring to it even parenthetically in anything that I wrote. And yet, almost despite myself, I began to draw all sorts of metaphorical allusions based on what was really a very limited knowledge of the country and a very casual exposure to it. I found myself writing musical critiques, for instance, in which the - the idea of the North - began to serve as a foil for other ideas and values that seemed to me depressingly urban oriented and spiritually limited thereby.’

‘Admittedly, it's a question of attitude, and I'm not sure that my own quasiallegorical attitude towards the North is the proper way to make use of it or even an accurate way in which to define it. Nevertheless, I'm by no means alone in this reaction to the North; there are very few people who make contact with it and emerge entirely unscathed. Something really does happen to most people who go into the North - they become at least aware of the creative opportunity which the physical fact of the country represents and - quite often, I think - come to measure their own work and life against that rather staggering creative possibility:they become, in effect, philosophers. ‘

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Samuel Beckett on Proust (1931)

"There is no escape from yesterday because yesterday has deformed us, or been deformed by us. The word is of no importance. Deformation has taken place. Yesterday is not a milestone which has been passed, but a daystone on the beaten track of the years, and irremediably part of us, within us, heavy and dangerous. We are not merely more weary because of yesterday, we are other, no longer what we were before the calamity of yesterday." (P13)

"The aspirations of yesterday were valid for yesterday's ego, not for today's. We are disappointed at the nullity of what we were pleased to call attainment. But what is attainment? The identification of the subject with the object of his desire. The subject has died - and perhaps many times - on the way. (P13f)

"Voluntary memory (Proust repeats it ad nauseam) is of no value as an instrument of evocation, and provides an image as far removed from the real as the myth of our imagination or the caricature furnished by direct perception. There is only one real impression and one adequate mode of evocation. Over neither have we the least control." (P14)

"But involuntary memory is an unruly magician and will not be importuned. It chooses its own time and place for the performance of its miracle. I do not know how many times this miracle recurs in Proust. I think twelve or thirteen times. But the first - the famous episode of the madeleine steeped in tea - would justify the assertion that his entire book is a monument to involuntary memory and the epic of its action. The whole of Proust's world comes out of a teacup....."(P34)

On Page 54, quoting Proust: 'How can we have the courage to wish to live, how can we make a movement to preserve ourselves from death, in a world where love is provoked by a lie and consists solely in the need of having one's suffering appeased by whatever being has made us suffer.?' (Proust, of course, is at this point dwelling on his painful and labyrinthine relationship with Albertine.)

Beckett comments: "Surely in the whole of literature there is no study of that desert of loneliness and recrimination that men call love posed and developed with such diabolical unscurpulousness." On Page 64, quoting Proust: 'One lies all one's life long, and above all to that stranger whose contempt would cause the most pain - oneself.'