Beacon Bound, Part IV: Momentum

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In memory of his grandfather, Nicholas Herrmann walks the length of The Ridgeway: an ancient road stretching for eighty-seven miles across chalk downland, from Overton Hill to Ivinghoe Beacon. We will be following Nicholas’ journey here on the Elsewhere blog over the next couple of months.

As I round the corner a field comes to life, spiralling into the sky. I count twenty before they tornado away, another nine still hunched in the sun. The air is a solid wall of wings. This could be normal for all I know, but it feels like an omen: the universe flexing, a flurry of autumn heralding the end. I lift my camera too late, and through glass watch as the storm of kites blows silently over the hill.

But this is later. The day starts where we left off: by the walls of the neighbourly Church of the Holy Trinity, where we’re offered tea and biscuits before we’ve even begun. A kestrel splashes above the Ridgeway, treading water in the sky. Soon, the path is swallowed by a golf course, so we hunt for waymarks, following a trail of painted acorns. My skin prickles as I pass over dead patches on the manicured lawn – grass singed in the recent heatwave. Today, the conditions for walking are good: cool and overcast. We’ve finally made it to the other side of summer.

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Like deer, we slip across a road and into the trees, passing through alternating woods and fields of flint. The forested strips are tangled and dim, but autumn’s psychedelia is already spreading. The flash of an arum lily blazes through the late-summer green. Branches droop with dark clumps of elderberries and the shadowy orbs of sloes. Ripening rose hips blush between the leaves. Hawthorns radiate red. At intervals, we pause to gorge ourselves on blackberries, quietly marvelling at their galaxies of flavour: rich, soft, syrupy, like wine. We have entered the treasure season, when countless precious things are offered up by the earth. Happily, I tongue at a seed in my molar as acorns and conkers rain down on the approach to Swyncombe – a village where sheep-eaten trees rise from the field like bearskin hats, the culprits patrolling the grounds around the steeple-less church of St Botolph.

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The miles start to merge. West of the Thames, the path had defined sections, distinct chapters punctuated by landmarks and sudden topographical changes. There’s less drama in the Chilterns, the path meandering between field and forest, rolling from hamlet to farm. With a lack of milestones, we weave across the landscape in a daze, scattering pheasants as we sleepily kick through crabapples. At a certain point, the path drops and turns sharply northeast. This is where the storm of kites is waiting.

I freeze beneath the boiling sky.

More tree-lined avenues, more fields gilded by the intermittent sun. We pass a yew tree, its berries like bright little bells. All parts of the yew are toxic to humans: the needles, the branches, the bark. Only the fruit can be eaten – the fleshy aril – but not the seed inside, which can cause rapid heart failure due to the lethal amounts of cardiotoxic chemicals called taxine. I remember John worrying me at a young age with this strange fact, on a walk somewhere in the Chilterns. If he were here now, he might also explain that these same compounds can slow and kill cancer cells, and a number of chemotherapy drugs are developed from yew trees. This is a fact I learn later in my research, but I’m sure its one John would have known. This was his area of expertise – for years he worked as a biochemist at a major pharmaceutical company, helping to develop the antibiotic cephalosporin. I reach out. My hand hesitates by the branch. But without John here to reassure me of the biology, I lose my nerve, leaving the ripe berries uneaten.

An immense concrete structure rears out of the landscape, penetrating the hills ahead. We’ve arrived at the Stokenchurch Gap, a forty-seven-metre canyon gouged into the chalk by the M40. The motorway dominates the countryside, drowning out birdsong, polluting the fruit that lines the approach, and crowding the Aston Rowant National Nature Reserve – one of four initial sites chosen for the UK’s 1989 red kite reintroduction programme. Perhaps this explains my earlier encounter: we have found the kite’s heartland, the bird’s birthplace. The road might even serve as some kind of umbilical cord, nurturing them from the cradle with a steady stream of roadkill. I walk quickly through the underpass, aware of the weight thundering overhead. On the other side, a group of horses cowers by a hedge, sonically trapped in the shadow of the road. I wonder if they even notice it anymore, that white noise forever in their skulls.

The roar stalks us for a mile or more. Horse chestnuts lead the way towards Chinnor, already red and shedding to cover old horseshoes in the dry earth. The smell of autumn hits me here: damp and gloomy, brisk and cosy, bringing with it a hundred memories of fires, fireworks, fangs and fake blood. My parents and I sweep through the leaves in silence, the season returning us to our childhoods.

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Once more, clouds gather over the homestretch, mirroring the curves and contours of the downland below. We leave the Ridgeway at a crossroads, turning for the nearby village of Crowell, a leaden sky creeping from the west.  

We’re heading for the edge of the world.

Huge, flooded hollows appear on either side of the path. These are the remains of a former chalk quarry, now the Chinnor Chalk Pit Site of Special Scientific Interest. I catch glimpses behind the trees: white cliffs falling to ice-blue water and wading birds. My father remembers visiting the town as a child when the quarry was still in use, and noticing a layer of white dust over everything. Today, tall wire fences and warning signs stop anyone from entering. It seems like a waste – two perfect lakes cordoned off and hidden from the world. I learn later that before security increased at the site, people would sneak in regularly to enjoy the forbidden waters.

Despite the blockades, it’s a pleasant stretch, warmed by the last of the year’s sun. Dragonflies dart between unearthly plants: spidery teasels and plump, purple buddleia. Soon, we’re crossing over a road to a section of the path bustling with runners and dog walkers, shouts drifting from a nearby football match. The way opens up to the sudden sweep of the Aylesbury Vale, then continues on past tennis courts, hedges trained into unnatural shapes, and wooden fences smeared in creosote.

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We’re taken through ash plantations and over storybook hills, where house martins swell above the stubble – one final flight test before heading south. We’ve been hugging the foot of the Chilterns until now, but finally the path rises steeply up Lodge Hill. We stop halfway to catch our breath, and my father tells us about the homemade topographical maps John used to build, reconstructing the Chilterns by cutting and layering sheets of polystyrene. For the rest of the climb, I imagine myself in miniature against a white background, stepping from sheet to sheet.

Finally, we’re in the sky, with vistas reminiscent of the North Wessex Downs, Princes Risborough glittering in the distance as it catches the late-afternoon sun. Small orange butterflies spiral along the ground like fallen leaves, leading us over a railway line to meet up with the Wycombe Road, which rushes towards the edge of town. Here, we veer off, skirting the perimeter through back alleys to another busy road, where vintage cars rumble past on their way to the Kop Hill Climb car show. We’ve made it into Buckinghamshire, our penultimate county.

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A giant white cross of unknown origin, carved into the side of Whiteleaf Hill, watches us climb to the bottom of Brush Hill and into the trees. At the top, I startle a drone hovering above the nature reserve like a mechanical kestrel. It lurches in the air, regards me for a moment, then quickly whines away. I turn to get a drone’s-eye view, and I’m struck by a panorama that stretches all the way to the familiar outline of Didcot Power Station squatting in the haze. The distant smudge of the Marlborough Downs lies beyond, where we were clambering half a year and half a world ago. We’re gathering momentum – by the end of the day we’ll only be left with a handful of miles, having travelled through ancient eras and extinct kingdoms, over thousands of years: sarsens, castles, barrows and bunkers, combes, downs, towns and fields, churches, power stations, waterways and motorways, heat, sleet, wind and rain.

Unusually, the path cuts through a pub, squirrelled at the bottom of the scarp. We stop at The Plough to raise an ale to John. Nearby lies the entrance to another nature reserve: the sheltered haven of Grangelands and The Rifle Range, where sheep balance on rippling grassland, and a photographer waits patiently for the golden hour. From here, we follow the bob and roll of the landscape to the Chequers estate. We give the house a wide berth, fearfully sticking to the path as I quietly describe the plot of Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household. In the grounds, a deer tiptoes past a black pole brimming with surveillance cameras.

In the dark of an evening beechwood, I trip over roots, unsteady and aching from tiredness. We finish just before Coombe Hill – a place my father and his siblings would be brought on walks when they were young. They called it The Edge of the World. The name feels appropriate: past this point the Beacon waits. We’ll step off the edge and drift the remaining distance, like ships sailing to the Undying Lands.

The temperature is falling, the light’s bruising blue. There’s something in the air, tightening and retreating. We’ve finished another journey but we haven’t quite arrived. Autumn’s just a border.

Nicholas Herrmann is a writer and photographer based in Bath. His work has appeared in journals and online, and his writing has been shortlisted for the Bath Novel Award and Janklow and Nesbit Prize. He is a graduate of the Creative Writing MA at Bath Spa University. He is currently working on his first novel. You can find him on Twitter: @NickPSH.

Bishop's Pool: A Poem

By Ciarán O'Rourke:

This poem has roots 
in the sea, and time: 

in Bishop's Pool, when 
we slipped the plunging sun...

and let the wrack-
blue waters 

haul and hold, com-
pletely plumb 

our bodies' bird-boned, 
drifting shiver

down to the merrow 
dark below, 

where breakers 
breathe

and the green foam 
drops 

a hundred ways
to shadow: yes, 

dropped and spilled 
our names afresh

as salt, and sand,
and a wind awash

with things we bring 
to the sea's flame,

which now (and 
every wanting season) 

lay claim 
to us again:

five shipwrecked 
mountains, dreaming mist, 

the cuckoo's eye, 
the brimming nest, 

the latch in the voice 
and lift of pain, 

the flit of a swallow
in a flense of rain, 

the wave in the blood 
and the swimming stone

that flows and falls 
by breath alone – 

like the ghosts we knew
on given nights,

soft as seals 
in the soundless light.

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About the author: Ciarán O'Rourke was born in 1991 and is based in Dublin. He has won the Lena Maguire/Cúirt New Irish Writing Award and the Fish Poetry Prize. His first collection, The Buried Breath, is published by Irish Pages Press (November 2018).

Music and place: Kitty Macfarlane's Namer of Clouds

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Review and Interview by Paul Scraton:

I first heard the music of Kitty Macfarlane on her EP ‘Tide & Time’ a couple of years ago and was immediately struck by both the beauty of her voice and the spirit of place to be found within the lyrics. ‘Wrecking Days’ was the standout song, with its stories of beachcombers stalking the shore, and it was great to hear it again in a new arrangement on Macfarlane’s debut album ‘Namer of Clouds’, which is released by Navigator Records this week.

All the tracks on ‘Namer of Clouds’ speak to our relationship with landscape, place and the environment, whether it is Macfarlane’s native Somerset on ‘Man, Friendship’ or the story of the last of the Sardinian sea silk seamstresses on ‘Sea Silk’. This is an album of haunting, lyrical music that asks the listener to consider her place in the world, the beauty to be found there and the consequences of our negligence or disinterest. On ‘Wrecking Days,’ Macfarlane describes what is left behind by the tide, and if there is poetry in the image of cuttlefish bones, there is certainly a warning in what else can be found on the beach, from the discarded fishing tackle to the plastic bottle tops, resting among the seaweed and stones.

This is thoughtful songwriting, whether in the original compositions or new arrangements of traditional folk ballads. The album closes with an artistic collaboration across the ages: on Inversnaid Macfarlane reworks a 150 year-old poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins about the importance of preserving the wilderness for future generations, a task that is as important now as it ever was.

You can hear ‘Man, Friendship’ and see the official music video below, and we are extremely grateful to Kitty Macfarlane for answering some of our questions about the album, her songwriting in general, and the importance of place in her work:

From the moment I heard Wrecking Days on the Tide & Time EP, it seemed clear to me that there is a distinct sense of place in your songwriting. What role do you feel place has in your work, and which places most influenced the songs on the new album?

'Place' isn't just a geographical location. It's bound up in the stories that span hundreds of years, the changing face of a landscape over time (and our part in that), the traditions that tie people to the land, and the inexplicable way certain corners of the world can make you feel. At school we are taught geography, history, art, chemistry... as if they are separate things. For me, songwriting pulls it all together. My album couldn't help but be a bit of a tribute to Somerset, where I am from – the scenery creeps into my songs almost by accident, along with the stories of the people and creatures that live there. That said, there is also a song set on a small Mediterranean island off Sardinia, and another which is a song-setting of a poem by Manley Hopkins about a Scottish stream. I wanted it to be an album of songs loosely bound by mankind's relationship with the land.

Of all the places you have written about or the landscapes that have otherwise inspired your work, which is your favourite?

Again and again my songs return to the beautiful and ancient Somerset Levels. They are a large low-lying wetland area of peat and clay with an eerie timeless quality - perhaps something to do with their yearly renewal by ruthless flooding. The Levels hold stories of ancient people preserved in the peat; of wandering Neolithic people on their wooden trackways; of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, conquering the Danes against all odds from his hiding place on the isle of Athelney; of the disastrous floods of 1607 where thousands of people perished; of the basket-makers and thatchers, the elver fishermen and cider producers. Man, Friendship deals with our steadily changing climate, the cruel floods across Sedgemoor and what is left for humanity to cling to when all else is washed away.

In February this year I went down to Shapwick Heath nature reserve on the Levels to watch the starling murmurations at dusk. I was surprised to find hundreds of other people with the same idea, and there we all stood, wrapped up in coats and scarves, while a hundred thousand winged bodies swelled above us, bound by some magnetic tether, a pulsing leviathan in the sky. I wrote Starling Song about this uncanny phenomenon, but it was more than just a spectacle for me - it felt like a moment of immense connection with humanity.

Glass Eel is a on the surface a song about the eels that have historically filled Somerset's waterways. Their colossal, near 4000 mile migration from the Sargasso Sea to Europe is one of science's great mysteries, and there are many parts of their enigmatic life cycle that we still don't understand. The song is about the constant motion of the Earth and everything on it – how we are all compelled by the same centrifuge that drives the eel. But the European Eel is now critically endangered, due to a loss of intertidal and wetland habitats, overfishing, and man-made obstacles to their mammoth journey. I think the plight of the lowly eel is strangely metaphorical for the problems our own species faces – our fragmentation of the land with motorways, dams and weirs is like the international fissures wrought on a global scale, our gluttony and overfishing relates to our wider exploitation of the environment, and the eel's journey recalls our own questions of rights to land, migration, and belonging.

Do you find yourself most inspired by places you know well, or have travels - on tour for instance, or otherwise - given you new places to write about?

There's a definite appeal to writing about places that are familiar, as they become entwined with so many unaccountable emotions and memories. But there is inspiration everywhere and it's exciting to think of how open-ended songwriting can be. For one of the songs on the album, Sea Silk, I travelled to Sant'Antioco, a small island off Sardinia to meet and interview an elderly Italian lady who is one of the last remaining people to create 'sea silk' in the authentic and traditional way. Sea silk is a very fine thread spun from the filaments or 'byssus' of giant endangered clams that live in the Mediterranean. It has extraordinary qualities which turn it from a dull brown to a brilliant gold in sunlight. The art of spinning sea silk has been practised for centuries, and is passed down through generations of women in Sant'Antioco – traditionally, it cannot be sold for profit, but must only be given away. It crops up throughout history here and there – Nefertiti's bracelets, King Solomon's robes, even perhaps Jason's golden fleece... but is shrouded in mystery. Chiara Vigo is a remarkable woman who has devoted her life to this art form, and it was incredibly special to hear her talk about how she learnt it from her grandmother as a girl.

To me it spoke of the historical relationship between women and textiles and the land, and the important roles women throughout the world have quietly performed in the background that are rarely acknowledged by the history books. I love knitting, and part of that is the feeling of connection with generations of women before me. I don't actually speak Italian, and Chiara doesn't speak English, which made for an interesting interview (luckily I brought a friend who could translate!) but when we showed each other our own knitted creations, it felt like we shared a common tongue. A recording of Chiara's rich italian speaking voice opens the song, along with part of a soft chanting folk song that she sang to us, that coincidentally happened to be in the right key... it all felt spookily preordained!

In the album notes it says that "the album is augmented by all kinds of 'found' sound." Can you tell us a bit more about this, and how you think this helps route your songs in the places you are writing about?

I really wanted the album to feature little pieces of the places that inspired the songs. We borrowed a portable mic and took field recordings in various locations – the chaotic waterfowl recorded at dawn from a hide on the Avalon Marshes set behind Starling Song (I saw my first Bittern while recording this!)the babbling brook with its restful birdsong to accompany Inversnaid, the crash of Sardinian waves behind Sea SilkMorgan's Pantry is a traditional song about the malicious 'Morgans' that live in the Bristol Channel, that allegedly come to the shore at the foot of a hidden waterfall on the North Coast. We set out to track down this waterfall, only accessible at low tide, from an Ordnance Survey map, and recorded the rush of water falling onto the rocks, which then formed part of the song's soundscape. Using found sound seemed to pay tribute to the people and places in the songs, and made the process feel like a sort of collaboration between myself and the wild.

What are your upcoming plans? Tour dates you'd like to tell us about... oh, and when will you be coming to play in Berlin?

I'm just about to set off on a big UK tour! It starts on the 4th October in the Lake District, then I'm off all over the country for 23 gigs in all. The two biggies though are my album launch shows in Bristol (10th November) and London Kings Cross (13th) – these will be really special evenings where I'll be playing with a full band with lots of treats and surprises... Unfortunately no European gigs yet, but I'd love to come and play in Berlin one day!

The Namer of Clouds by Kitty Macfarlane is released on 21 September 2018 by Navigator Records.

College Students on Saturday Nights

 ARTWORK: UNTITLED. JASE FALK

ARTWORK: UNTITLED. JASE FALK

By Kell Xavier:

Held in a burst of fluorescent lights that wear the cloth of pinprick stars, pink petals of luminous shops sell kebabs, korma, train-over-rail harmonious sounds. Yellow glows on faces turned down low. Empathy sits with me; self-enveloping. Restaurants pool with comfort, a warm bliss that I gather and fold under my armpits, over my unoiled spine. Through windows, my softened flesh, my stillness is retracted. A chew of gluttony is sawed off of this list: acceptable ways to carry love. A mother teaches Marilyn in cinched phrases for wide blond lashes. A portrait, a funeral. The blue iris young, their bellies are not fond of ice cream, so they sup orange cream sorbet. Disguised in the paint of stereotype, curly happy locks unfurl on the shoulders of these sprightly boys; their sureness is high winds, is palm trees timbered. Little voices chaperoned by temple bells and seaweed. I'm sorry for labels stuck to matted house cat fur. Scrape my waxed ears, I want to hear these young boy sounds: burgeoning, lively.

Today stutters over the neck with cold fingers. Language hangs on the air like plants wired from the ceiling of a stained glass garden. Cloudy greyness mixes in the murk of my mind with the Valentine red laid out for tomorrow. The body prepares to exhale, content with the current disharmony, its prophecies of coming pleasure. In the domed expanse of oncoming night, I wonder, Why feed tonight? Why not tomorrow’s now instead of today’s? Nanaimo sits in glitter

@ 9:10 on cutaway benches, on two-lane roads, on a rusted tuning fork statue, on a smoke dance caught midair. My bench is cool, my back warm, the clubbing music loud, and gnats are scarce so far. Nanaimo cups around lights; it looks through windows, listens under the pop tunes for a hint of a hint. We here are something, we have made a monument. In burgundy and pale green  and ink blue colour blocks, here: the could-be-ness of home.

About:
Kell makes meaning with words and movement. He is non-binary, likes film and dandelions, and resides on Treaty One territory. Kell is on Twitter: @icebox_clouds

The Library: Hard Border – Walking Through a Century of Irish Partition, by Darach MacDonald

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Read by Marcel Krueger:

The Automobile Associaton of Ireland's 1962 handbook contains six pages of guidance for people planning to cross the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. There are 18 approved roads with customs posts, and the AA warns that vehicles were liable for customs duty and purchase tax upon entering Northern Ireland, requiring motorists to 'lodge large sums of money at the frontier' or avoid doing so by providing a so-called 'triptyque' passbook for stamping at frontier crossings. The border section closes with a warning: motorists crossing on unapproved roads are 'liable to very severe penalties, including confiscation of [their] car.' Customs post also only had limited opening hours and late-night crossings incurred an additional fee of 2 shillings, usually paid in advance.

The slow train wreck of Brexit and the connected question of the future of the only land border between the European Union and the UK has in recent years increased the interest in the history of Irish partition and the 499 km-long frontier between the Republic and Northern Ireland. Countless TV and print reports have investigated it, the border now has its own darkly funny Twitter account, and there has been a loose series of books about the border as well, first and foremost Garett Carr's 'The Rule of Land' (2017), which follows the author's trek from Carlingford Lough along the border to Lough Foyle. Darach MacDonald's 'Hard Border' is the latest addition to the loose canon of Irish border books, but this one zooms in a bit deeper than most. Despite the flashy cover which seems to indicate a more political look at the potential of a 'hard' border, instead this is a deeply personal look at the history of the border, and 'hard' here could also mean 'deadly'.

MacDonald is a veteran journalist hailing from Clones in County Monaghan, and has written extensively about his home country and the border, most recently in ' Blood & Thunder: Inside an Ulster Protestant Band' (2010). For this later border-book, he walked the 75-kilometer route of the now-defunct Ulster Canal, which was completed in 1842 to link Lough Neagh to the Erne system but proved unsuccessful, was outstripped by the railways and the subsequent partition of Ireland and finally closed in 1932. Even though there are plans to develop a greenway along its banks, to date most of it is neglected and overgrown, which forces MacDonald through dense undergrowth and on many detours – which is almost synonymous for the tangled history of the Irish border which he encounters. Following the canal from Castle Saunderson to the Moy, the author explores both the drumlin landscape and the history of the last 100 years in the border heartlands, where five counties meet: Cavan and Monaghan in the Republic and Fermanagh, Tyrone and Armagh in Northern Ireland. Here, the border shifts and snakes around villages and roads, forming loops that almost become enclaves and exclaves (and will cause many a Brexit headache): for example, there are eight roads in and out Clones in Monaghan – five of which run into Fermanagh.

Walking this convoluted border give MacDonald the chance to dive deep into the political reasons behind partition and also to chart the violence that spilled across the border from both sides: from the Irish Civil War over the so-called border campaign of the IRA in the 1950s to the horrors of the Northern Ireland conflict between 1969 and 1998. And it is the latter which results in the strongest parts of the book, when MacDonald talks about the horrendous tit-for-tat killings that he witnessed, often perpetrated by neighbours and members of the same community:

The terror persisted and lapped to and fro across the border, as with the abduction and murder of Ross Hearst of Middletown in 1980. The 52-year old father of five was taken at gunpoint outside a friend's house in Tullylush, back near where the Monaghan Mushrooms plant stands today. His corpse with four bullet wounds was dumped at Wards Cross, a short distance away on the border. [...] Seamus Soroghan of Monaghan town was later convicted of the murder. Yet no sentence could allay the trauma of the Hearst family, which at the time of the father's death was still mourning the 1977 killing of his daughter Margaret Ann Hearst, a 24-year-old-single mother of a 3-year-old child, and part-time soldier in the UDR [Ulster Defence Regiment].

As an outsider from Germany, the Irish border and its effect on the communities it historically divided and still divides often reminds me of the Berlin Wall, which had similar seemingly random nooks and crannies that meant division and death for their inhabitants. There is the 'Entenschnabel', the Duck's Bill in Glienicke/Nordbahn, where a GDR neighbourhood along one street was enclosed by West Berlin on three sides, or the Eiskeller, where three West Berlin farmer families could only get to the city along a small road four metres wide and 800 meters long. And while the Irish Border was not as tightly sealed as the Berlin one, it was at least as deadly and meant similar arrangements for those affected by it. At the height of the Troubles, the five roads out of Clones into the North were closed, and just a single main route across the border remained open in the area, and any traffic wishing to pass had to go through a full military checkpoint, often resulting in long delays - and at the height of the IRA’s campaign in the 1970s and 80s most smaller lanes leading from that main road across the border were spiked, blocked with concrete blocks or blown up by the British Army.

There's a lot of fighting and killing in this book, but this is no over-proportionate for the slice of Irish landscape and history it analyses – the terror, after all, was real. This is not a lighthearted romp, but also not a hopeless one. There's plenty of positive stories, like the history of the Leslie family of Glaslough and their (in)famous parties, or the stories of local entrepreneurship (like the aforementioned mushroom plant) that were made possible by the opening of the border after the Good Friday Agreement 1999. MacDonald is apprehensive about the potential impacts of Brexit, and rightly so, as his fine mix of memoir and history in 'Hard Border' properly put the border and its effect on the local communities into perspective. The only thing lacking is a detailed map, which would make it easy for those encountering the pitfalls of the Irish border for the first time to trace its weird loops – and a timeline would also have helped.

But otherwise, this is a fine journey through the history of the Irish border heartlands, filled with affrays, danger, hope, a soviet in the Monaghan Lunatic Asylum and Oscar Wilde's sisters, burning to death on Halloween. I can thoroughly recommend it to both newcomers to the Irish border as well as veteran border writers and walkers. And especially to Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Hard Border is published by New Island and is available through their website or from any independent bookshop.

The destroyed village: Fleury-devant-Douaumont

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By Paul Scraton:

As the road approaches the village through the forest, a sign appears at the sign of the road. It is like all others at the entrance to villages and towns throughout France: a white rectangle, fringed in red. The name of the settlement in black letters.

FLEURY DT DOUAUMONT

But unlike most other towns or villages in France, there are more words underneath.

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These two words mark Fleury-devant-Douaumont out from the other villages in the surrounding region and across the country. These two words help tell a story. In the forests around the town of Verdun, in the northeast of France, there are eight other villages with this categorisation. They stand in the Zone Rouge, an area declared uninhabitable by the French government after the devastation of the First World War. The land was contaminated, as along with the remains of the dead, poison and other dangerous gases had soaked into the soil along with lead and mercury, with impossible to calculate amounts of unexploded ordinances littered across the former battlefields.

Before the First World War Fleury-devant-Douaumont was home to just over 400 inhabitants, who worked the land or in the village itself. There were farms and smithys, a bakery and a grocery-cafe. A church and a school, a town hall and a weaver's workshop. It was not easy farming land, although even this far north the villagers were able to harvest grapes and make money from the forest that surrounded them.

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On the 21 February 1916 the sound of artillery shells marked the beginning of the German advance, part of what would become known as the Battle of Verdun, one of the deadliest in all of military history. A few hundred metres from the entrance to the village, the cemetery at Douaumont is the resting place for thousands of French soldiers who died in a battle that lasted months. The ossuary, one of France’s most important national monuments, houses the remains of over 130,000 French and German soldiers who fell at Verdun. Altogether, the fighting in these now peaceful, wooded hills, took the lives of well over 300,000 mostly young men and although the forest now covers the landscape, the scars remain. Trenches, dug down into the soil. Shell craters, that give the land a strange, undulating shape. And crosses, so many crosses, in long neat lines. A reminder, a hundred years later, of what was lost.

As the Germans advanced, Fleury-devant-Douaumont was evacuated. Altogether, what remained of the village exchanged hands sixteen times over the course of the battle. When it finally ended, the village was no more. It was in the Zone Rouge, declared a village that had ‘died for France.’ Nothing was left, but in honour of its sacrifice, it kept its legal status. The red-framed white signs still stand at the entrance and exit of Fleury-devant-Douaumont. It still has a mayor.

Today, visitors park on the side of the road that links the Douaumont ossuary with the Verdun Memorial, and wander the three streets of the village, marked out as they are among the trees by white poles. Stone slabs inform visitors in three languages as to what building once occupied a particular plot of land. A farm. The church. A bakery. The wash house. The school. There are remnants of some structures – a few stones in the ground, foundations poking through the mossy forest floor – but otherwise there is nothing, except the war memorial and a rebuilt chapel, where Our Lady of Europe, draped in a blue flag with gold stars, offers a permanent reminder of what could emerge out of the devastation of not only this war, but the one that was soon to follow.

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A small plaque offers the visitor a few words from Jean Guitton of the Académie française:

It is here, in the silence of Douaumont and the wiped out village of Fleury that I came to realise that you cannot pull down walls in Europe without first reconciling the peoples.

In the village and at the ossuary, there are cars parked with visitors from across Europe. The GB and the B. The CZ and the PL. The L and the NL. Mostly F and D, coming like Mitterand and Kohl did, and later Hollande and Merkel, to pay their respects together to the fallen of both countries. It is without question a sombre place. Signs at the entrance of the forest gently remind you that it is not a place for picnics or music, ball games or impromptu campsites. Other signs warn walkers and cyclists to stick to the paths, that the weapons of war can still kill, even a hundred years after the peace.

Why is important to visit such places? Why should we walk through Fleury-devant-Douaumont, where the streets and the memories of the houses and the people that once occupied this hillside have been reclaimed by the forest? Stefan Zweig knew. In 1920, the Austrian writer travelled to Ypres. The guns had only been silent for a couple of years. The landscape was still devastated and the wounded were still returning to their homes and already the first tourist groups were arriving, to the battlefields of Flanders and elsewhere along the Western Front.

For Zweig, the traces were important, whether two years after the events or a hundred. In Fleury-devant-Douaumont I thought of Zweig’s words, written after his return from Ypres. It made me hopeful that there were other people there with me in the woods, walking the village streets now held in the embrace of the forest. Zweig knew that despite the distasteful elements of places such as these becoming tourist destinations, there was still something good, and something very important, “when a hundred thousand people, comfortable and carefree, clatter through … annually, and whether they care for it or not, these countless graves, these poisoned woods, these devastated squares still serve as reminders… All that recalls the past in whatever form or intention leads the memory back towards those terrible years that must never be unlearned.”

About the author:
Paul Scraton is the editor in chief of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place. Paul’s book Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic coast is out now, published by Influx Press.

In Olšany Cemetery

Olsany Cemetery photo.jpg

By Anna Evans:

On a weekend trip to Prague they decide to walk in the cemetery near where they are staying in Prague 3. They agree to set out early, visit the cemetery, and then to continue with their day. It is October, an early morning chill in the air, but already the sunlight is beginning to glance down with a nod, promising warmth, an unexpected dawning of late summer spells.

She reads aloud from her book, ‘See, the first line mentions the cemetery…  listen, it says…’ She hasn’t made it very far with the book yet, but is glad to be reading a Czech author. There is something about this place, she thinks. I would like to get to know this city and its complex history; this city of writers and of walking.

Leaving their apartment building, they can see the wall of the cemetery in front of them and trees behind. Crossing the road they find an entrance at the end of the street.

It is one of those rare times when both agree that this is the only place they really want to be, that given the chance they wouldn’t be anywhere else. They listen carefully to the other’s remarks and laugh together as two people who know and understand each other. They agree that it’s good to be away from home, that the best feeling of all is the day stretching out in front of them, the city to explore. The feeling of waking early in a new place, that sense of accomplishment. The promise of black coffee and the warming smell of baking bread. There is a route planned on a map, the streets of Prague, its art nouveau buildings a perfect tapestry through which to wander, to the sound of passing trams.

The trees are filters for the sunlight, and leaves are beginning to cover everything. Wandering along the paths, the gravestones draped in ivy but without the sense of neglect and desperate wildness some cemeteries have.

Those strange eruptions from the ground growing amongst the trees, marble and stone of different shapes and sizes with pathways running between. They are like city streets, laid out in blocks with signs, and all the leaves swept away. Sometimes the graves look like grand city houses. ‘How funny that money and status should continue to follow us into death,’ he says, and they pause, thinking of the years sliding past them.

Walking and reading the stones, thinking about what draws people to cemeteries, trying to describe the sense of peace and watchfulness it brings. There are those tending the graves of family, holding in their hands the span of remembrance; like the flowers they lay down, for as long as their transient bodies remain. The green force flowing through the stems cut off already from their source of life.

Looking at the names on the gravestones, reading the history of families, through the years engraved in stone. Of lost children, and married couples who died within months of one another.

Cemeteries are really places for the living.

Connected to our beginnings and ends, people wander through cemeteries to be close to those who are no longer here. Each city, each place, contains the imprints of all those who have walked its streets and all those yet to come, the ghosts of history who are with us even now. In some places we are more aware of them than others.

Confronting their mortality, but feeling life urging its way through their bodies, they walk around, knowing they will leave and continue the day, saying farewell to those in ivy-covered slumber.

Reaching the main entrance, the sun warmer and brighter, rising higher in the morning sky.  The sound of traffic from the road nearby and people walking past. Soon they will join the movement of the city streets and the day will glide by in all its colours.

For a moment though, they pause and look back. They both know how quickly and how easily the shadow beckons and can fall between them. Like feeling cold on a sunny day, like voices interrupting from the past, ghosts of time and distance.

About the author:
Anna Evans is a writer and researcher from Huddersfield in the north of England, currently living in Cambridge. Her interests are in migration and literature, cities and movement, and she completed an MA in ‘Writing the Modern World’ at the University of East Anglia in 2017. She is currently working on a project on the places in Jean Rhys’s fiction. 

Postcard from… Múli, Faroe Islands

TimFaroes.jpg

By Tim Woods:

There is a temptation to romanticise the lives of those in remote outposts. On the extremities of our lands, they are immersed in nature, in tune with their ecosystem; pursuing a simpler, less cluttered existence.

Yet it is not always a choice. Some inhabit these places through circumstance alone. And the other side of this coin is often hardship and poverty, loneliness and isolation. There is little romance in any of these.

Múli, near the northern tip of Borðoy, is one of several deserted hamlets scattered across the eighteen Faroe Islands. But its abandonment is more recent than most: the last inhabitants only left in 1998. There was no disaster, no seismic event that forced them away; they had simply had enough. The gravel road, built not long before then, was a noble attempt by the Faroese authorities to connect the hamlet to Norðdepil and Klaksvík; instead, it simply made it easier to get away.

I drove along that road one evening in June, the light not even close to fading during the endless days of a Nordic summer. It hugs the edge of a dramatic glacial landscape, all plunging cliffs and bowl-like valleys, plus many other features familiar to anyone with a GCSE geography textbook. After parking, I followed the path beyond the four houses of the hamlet, dodging the fractious kittiwakes leaving their cliffside nests to shoo me away. That romantic side briefly took over: what a place to live this would be.

But five minutes later, I’d reached the farthest point accessible before those fearful cliffs take hold once more. It’s not even three hundred metres from the houses; a remarkably small space from which to eke out a livelihood from farming.

Passing back past the houses, I noticed smoke from a chimney and voices inside. They are not completely abandoned, having taken on a new life as holiday lets that are regularly booked out during the summer. Landscapes such as this are, it seems, best enjoyed for a few days rather than a lifetime. Perhaps Múli has finally found its purpose.

Beacon Bound, Part III: Infalling

Monument.jpg

In memory of his grandfather, Nicholas Herrmann walks the length of The Ridgeway: an ancient road stretching for eighty-seven miles across chalk downland, from Overton Hill to Ivinghoe Beacon. We will be following Nicholas’ journey here on the Elsewhere blog over the next couple of months.

There he sleeps, immeasurable: the fire-drake. Somewhere under the earth, in some hill or nameless barrow. His lair is dim and airless, his breast the only glow. His hide is painted in royal reds, scales edged in gold as if gilded with sticky treasures. Coiled around his mass: a tail tipped with a fleur-de-lis. His wings are folded at his sides, bat-like, all skin and sinew. Horns peek from a fog of smoke that spreads with every breath. Claws, blood-muddied, dig into countless piles of precious things.

He could rise at any moment and burn the world away.

*

The Ridgeway smells of dead grass and chapped earth. The fields creak with crickets, and Cabbage Whites drift on the breeze like ash. Our bags are heavy on our bare shoulders as we step into summer. We’ve unpacked our raincoats and drybags, filled the space with water and sun cream. It’s already hot as we pass the Memorial of Lord Wantage – a striking column rising from the ridge, proclaiming aphorisms in Latin across the valley: Peace in passing away. Salvation after death. Light after darkness. Hope in light. Somewhere, we cross into Berkshire, my home county. Soon, we’ll be wading into the Thames and resting in the Chilterns’ beechwood shade, but first we must traverse ten miles of parched and dying downland.

A terrifying alchemy has taken place: the ‘precious stone set in the silver sea’ turned to dust.

Haystacks.jpg

They’re calling it a heatwave. In the coming days, The Washington Post will run stories about the all-time records being set around the world: Africa and Japan witnessing their hottest ever temperatures, people dying in Canada, roads and roofs melting across the UK. The Jet Stream has buckled and the Gulf Stream is grinding to a halt, causing surface temperatures to rise. Whole sections of rivers vanish. Wildfires rage in the Arctic Circle. In Scotland, dogs die from lapping blooms of toxic algae. In Ireland and Wales, the drought causes crop marks to appear: outlines of ancient sites and settlements, unknown or long-lost, like marks from a magnifying glass burning through time. It’s Britain’s driest summer since modern records began. The heat is unnatural, the world uncomfortably warm.

On the path, flies cluster and chase, attracted by our gathering sweat. We push through tall, tick-threatening grass, guessing at the names of the wildflowers that colour the verge. I can only identify the obvious ones: cow parsley, buttercups, thistles. A hiker heading for Overton Hill points out others: ragwort, scabius, vetch. Names like ancient ailments.

My father has been clearing out John’s house in Wales, and there have been discussions about what to do with the dragons. They lurk on bookshelves beside Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica, squat on side tables above leather walking boots. There’s a dragon cast in iron, low and long; one made of plastic, a children’s toy elevated to ornament; one carved into a wooden stamp. The centrepiece is ceramic, hand painted in green and gold, clutching a crystal ball. It was a love born of studying biology and archeology, reading Pratchett and Tolkien. Even the house was part of the collection in a way – a bolt hole in the land of the dragon.

There’s no hiding from the heat. We’re stalked for miles by Didcot’s smoking towers. It’s a strange section of the trail, unremarkable and vast, the antithesis of Uffington, a place busy with history. We pass under the A34, connecting Newbury and Oxford like a steel pin forced through the bone of the land. The roaring underpass provides a few seconds of relief before we’re once again bombarded by UV rays.

After another stretch, the landscape relaxes into a valley, the power station falling out of sight. At the bottom, a little brick bridge arches over a trench of nettles: the skeleton of the Didcot, Newbury and Southampton Railway, opened at the end of the nineteenth century, closed in the 1960s due to lack of traffic. The DN&SR became important in World War Two, when it was used to transport supplies to the coast in preparations for the Normandy landings. Our presence flusters a couple of wood pigeons that blunder into the trees. I lean on the wall and gaze into the green abyss, imagining the wildlife tucked into the weeds, the insects nesting in cracks, the creatures suspended in shadow. I wonder when the A34 will go this way – sink back into nature, burst open and bloom. Return to barbarism.

Wheat.jpg

The buzz of a Cessna interrupts the heavy quiet of the afternoon. The breeze is thick and warm, dragon’s breath blowing in from the barley. Orchids rise from the bank. Heat haze ribbons on every edge. As we trudge the last few miles, the chalk of the Ridgeway glows white-hot, angling the sun at us, cooking us evenly. I squint, chalkblind.

Finally, we find shelter. A wood materialises on the lip of the Goring Gap as we descend the ridge. It’s a sign we’re moving through a new morphology now, that the windy, sweeping stretches of the North Wessex Downs are behind us. It also means we’re reaching the end of our first ancient highway, the Thames marking the start of the Icknield Way. We walk to the edge of Streatley, where a sign tells us we’ve been infalling for forty-one miles – almost half the distance to the Beacon. We see out the day at Aldworth, a village home to medieval giants, a one-thousand-year-old yew, and The Bell – the Platonic Form of a pub, housed in a building from the fifteenth century. We collapse onto rain-warped benches to savour local ciders beneath the falling sun.

*

The temperature rises by one degree.

Our skin a little pinker, we walk the final mile to Streatley. The town feels like a threshold, a red-brick terminal busy with early-risers leaving for the hills. There’s a book exchange in a telephone box, filled mostly with travel authors left by Ridgeway ramblers: Eric Newby, Paul Theroux, Patrick Leigh Fermor. We pass blue plaques announcing the famous feet that have graced the town: Turner did some sketches here, parts of The Wind in the Willows are set in the surrounds.

Signposts ferry us over the Thames, into Goring, and through a system of alleyways and driveways that cut between castles: riverside mansions that block our view of the water. On the map, the path appears to follow the river closely, but in reality we’re funnelled between eight-foot-high fences, with signs warning: private, keep out, the river doesn’t belong to us.

We emerge from the residential warren into a meadow of yellow wildflowers, ones I now have the power to name: ragwort. A train barrels past on its way to Reading. As we approach the perimeter of the village, church bells ringing the end of Sunday service, I’m put in mind of J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country. This approach through no man’s land feels foreign, like we’re strolling into the early 1900s – the meadow hasn’t been cultivated, built upon, or swallowed up by Goring. It feels rare to find such a clear delineation, a place not being put to use.

Bridge.jpg

At last, we reach the river, sleepy and wide. Dogs stand in the shallows snapping at phantoms, people wave from paddleboards. We wander alongside, coming to a four-arched Victorian railway bridge I later learn was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The brickwork shows its age – wrinkled and weathered, bleached by efflorescence, mottled and soiled with moss and soot. Two centuries absorbed in its pores: every storm that’s ever fallen, every boat that’s passed underneath. The bridge crosses the river aslant, the bricks arranged into complex diagonal structures. I linger to photograph an arch, mesmerised by its patterns and tones, the leaves and roots that sprout from the mortar. The years have given the bridge the same plumage as a kite.

Beach.jpg

We follow the water north. It’s hazy, humid, the sun at its zenith. We are desperate to find a place to swim. Soon, we find it: the perfect beach just off the towpath. I take off my hat and shirt, and immediately begin to burn. We wade in. My toes sink into the silt, my blood starts to cool. We stand and listen to the buzz of insects and distant shouts down the river. A laugh from my father – fish are nibbling at his feet. When the sun becomes too much, I bend my knees and launch myself, washing the heat from my skin in an instant. I dive to wipe the sweat from my brow. The relief is profound. My limbs feel apart from me. Like eels, they slip and slither in the shadows of the river. I swim into the middle and float among the dragonflies. I breathe in the fishy smell of willow, weed and water.

Like mudskippers, we climb out awkwardly, finding our feet on the sun-baked bank. I submerge my shirt before putting it on again, to carry the river with me a while. Then we head back into the long grass towards North Stoke.

The path takes us past a ‘Type 22’ pillbox in a riverside garden, its embrasures still narrowed at the Thames as if no one told it the war was over. We enter the graveyard of St. Mary the Virgin, a modest church of flint and beam founded in the eleventh century. Inside, medieval paintings of bible scenes adorn the walls, the figures cartoonish and flat. The thick walls fortify me, my sweat dried by the musty air. It smells subterranean, of a cave or sett, and I am returned to Wayland’s Smithy. My father’s voice reverberates in the empty building – he is reciting a section of his favourite poem:

You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.

Lines from ‘Little Gidding’, the final part of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. I stand in the nave clutching my notes, Eliot’s words ricocheting around my skull. Outside, the shadow of a kite orbits the churchyard, folding from stone to stone.

Wagtails wash by the old mill, the path growing more secluded on the approach to Crowmarsh, a name perfectly suited to this terrain. We are travelling through edgeland now, a place not quite nature, not yet town: boggy, littered and overgrown. The scent of poplar and lime mix with car fumes that linger above the A4074 – a road that acts as a final boundary before we’re once again climbing into the hills.

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This is where we run out of water. My skin wrings out the last few drops as I snake down narrow, nettle-lined paths that wind between wheat fields belonging to Lonesome Farm. We pause on the edge of our first proper beech forest where the ferns are thick, the birdsong exotic and loud. The topography has shifted: shady, verdant, animate.

Grim’s Ditch, a series of mysterious ancient earthworks we’ve been following for miles, grows deeper as we near Nuffield, like a dried up riverbed from some distant climatic tragedy. A red kite raises the alarm as we emerge from the trees: dragon-like, a lookout on the edge of its kingdom. The Church of the Holy Trinity, practiced in aiding walkers, supplies us with a bench and a tap. We fill our flasks and stomachs, water dripping from our chins. The kite whirls above us in the low light, sounding its battle cry: weee-ooh, ee oo ee oo ee oo.

All the colours of heat.

Nicholas Herrmann is a writer and photographer based in Bath. His work has appeared in journals and online, and his writing has been shortlisted for the Bath Novel Award and Janklow and Nesbit Prize. He is a graduate of the Creative Writing MA at Bath Spa University. He is currently working on his first novel. You can find him on Twitter: @NickPSH.

Island

 Artwork: Untitled, by Jase Falk

Artwork: Untitled, by Jase Falk

By Kell Xavier:

The house is at the top of a long driveway, paved years ago and strewn with gravel. On this hill, one can see the blue mountains, rain like steam in a different city. There are candy cane lilies in the front yard, and delicate yellow flowers hang from a twist of a tree. There is green grass by the campfire, the mint plant, the badminton net, the orange trees with their waxy leaves. I climb for tangerines, my fingers digging into orange skin on a fresh-plucked fruit.

I touch my hip bones before I sleep, a reminder of physicality and the thought of beauty. Lately, when I touch my body to the floor to roll in trials of choreographic magic, I find bruising peeking through my skin. I massage fingers into the looseness of their purple pain, calling it into me and alive, like an incantation. I hold my hip bones like knobs or handles, to propel me on.

He is king of everything the ocean touches. He says so. Once or twice a year, I beg the blues, the waves— spaces he believed in— to keep his spirit alive. Every now and then, I beg something— what do I believe in?— to keep my spirit warm to him.

In a poem, years ago, I compared my father to a candle flame. What I mean is: my fragile energy is a candle flame, I don't want to think about my father.

The warm silver of a siren calling, death with desire; the cold iron of a banshee, death with petrification.

About:
Kell makes meaning with words and movement. He is non-binary, likes film and dandelions, and resides on Treaty One territory. Kell is on Twitter: @icebox_clouds

Hiraeth

 Photo: jessica sealey

Photo: jessica sealey

By Aoife Inman:

It’s late but the evening light lingers at the peripheries of the ocean making the day stretch long into the night. Time seems to stretch here, the minutes distorted by the quiet swell of the ocean.

The air is full of mist; it pads out the twilight zone between the last dregs of evening and the soft beginnings of the morning. I’ve always thought this is an almost mythical piece of the day, when it’s neither light nor dark and the sky is damp and thick with salt, brushed in off the incoming tide. You can hold the mist between your teeth, wads of it pressed against the insides of your cheeks like cotton.

There aren’t many who bother to come down to the sea front at this hour, with the weather, as it is, temperamental and unforgiving. The wind bites and scratches at any scrap of skin left bare to the element and my thighs are lined with small red welts and scratches – the claws of the ocean have dug their way into me, right to the bone. Today, however, there are a few faces who peer palely over in my direction as I trail down the hill – van dwellers, keen surfers and fishermen, who are all, themselves, half brine and barely human, at least in the city sense of the word.

This was always the place I felt most at home, not here specifically but this ocean, this crack of coastline that juts out obstinately, defiant and secluded. It feels a million mile away from the industrial powerhouse cities I’ve made my home now.

Home. It’s a strange word whose weight has always felt uncomfortable in my mouth, hard and bitter. I was born on the road, moving between a collection of cardboard houses, each one like the last and yet lacking something. I resided in houses, habitats, a series of rooms, plaster, mortar and board – safe and comfortable but never permanent. To belong to just one place strikes me as an exhausting concept.

I thought when I had grown up that I’d settle somewhere; that I’d stop moving and plant some roots, or whatever the metaphor is, but I’ve realised that those moments, those years spent on the road, they get into your bones over time. Slowly, you barely feel it at first, but I can’t stay still now. I’ve tried, time and time again, found a place I love and settled there with a job and a plan and a circle of friends and then I feel that itch, again, against the soles of my feet. It’s like a disease, that itch, that want for change, it’s exhausting sometimes.

I walk along the cliff path, away from the cove, to the world’s edge where the grassy slope seems to fall away into the deafening blue. It’s a steep rocky path carved right into the grit and soil of the cliff, the sort that has been etched by many pairs of feet, worn over many years. When the tide eventually comes in it will cut off this path completely, a void of cold, blue Atlantic filling the space where my feet have trod. Nothing about the breadth or surface of this terrain is easily digestible. It’s a wholegrain, bran and fibre sort of landscape – some find it lonely, harsh, and unforgiving – I find myself falling in love with the rough corners of it every time I return.

When I was a child we were taught to spot currents on cliffs like this, our hands tracing the motions of the sea, trailing the lines of white foam that spread across the ocean like a film. I reach out my hand to lay it on the horizon, palm obscuring the bulb of the grey sun.

If you follow the cliff path round the curling edge of the peninsula you reach a town, a knot of tangled streets that overlap one another like old strings, every one gnarled with potholes and cobbles. I follow it now, zigzagging through kissing gates and through fields of thick grass. Everything is further apart here, houses and gardens stretch along the street, sand banks drag the beaches way out into the bay and the years seem to trickle by – I do not have to measure time so carefully here, there are months to spare.

The town is simple, a harbour filled with thin fishing boats and crab pots, a lifeboat house, a shop selling spades and 99 cones. It’s fixed in another time, another era where people worked with their hands, in the earth and the water.

This place is filled with mysticism, steeped in folklore, luck bound in rhymes and patterns of three. It’s everywhere you look, tucked in corners of woodland and thin waterfalls where faerie stacks topple. Down in the town the boats that jut out into the cove are named after mythical lands and magical creatures, suspicion has wormed its way amongst the men who tend the land and drag the sea.

“Look down there.” The mother leans into the clove of her son’s ear as she speaks. “Look down at that boat there, see the lions on its side?”

Sure enough, on its flanks are painted two yellow lions, their manes dipping and rising out of the green waters.

“They’re named after the legend of Lyonnesse…legend says there used to be a beautiful isle just set above Seven Stones reef that is halfway out to the Scillies. The city of lions and the land of Lyonesse, built with 140 churches atop it and a castle they say, all swallowed up in a single night by the ocean.”

The boy’s eyes widens as he listens, his hands gripping the handrails with his chubby palms.

His mother crouches down by his side, “look now do you see the top of the steeple there, just jutting out of the waves?”

He nods, eyes fixed on the grey sea.

The light is fading now, obscuring the edges of the day. Home, it’s a strange thing I think again, I wrap my tongue around it, a lump in the hollow of my mouth. It’s everywhere here and yet it feels distant. It’s in the lilt of the mother’s curling accent, the one I have lost over so many years spent away. It’s in each vowel, full bodied and warm, the crackle of pebbles under rubber boots in the evening tide, the low thud of water turning cliff to rubble.

I collect them in my palms as I count them, feel the weight of the love I hold for this place, and close my eyes as the day melts.

About the author:
Aoife Inman is a writer and historian based between Cornwall and Manchester. Her short stories have been published in Electric Reads’ Young Writers Anthology 2017 and New Binary Press’ 2018 Autonomy collection, as well as being long-listed for the 2016 Royal Academy Short Story Award. 

Postcard from… Szent Mihály, Balaton

 Photo: Katrin Schönig

Photo: Katrin Schönig

By Paul Scraton:

From the bike path that was leading us around Lake Balaton, a small track led up through the trees, winding its way around a couple of tight hairpins until it reached the top. There were picnic tables up there and a clearing in the woods that clung to the hillside, offering views across the curve of the lake’s western shore, back to Keszthely where we had started out that morning and across to Fonyód where, the previous day, we stopped to watch a congregation of egrets as they stalked along the pebbled shore.

 Photo: Katrin Schönig

Photo: Katrin Schönig

Also atop the hill was a white chapel, bright against the blue sky, and a series of crucified figures, carved out of wood and looking sorrowfully down towards the picnic tables and the views belong. The chapel was dedicated to Szent Mihály, and St Michael’s chapel had been built on this promontory above the lake for a very specific reason. The chapel was there to remember a day almost three hundred years before; a day very different to the one we experienced beneath a hot, June sun.

Over the winter of 1739, a group of fishermen walked out onto the ice on the edge of the partially frozen lake. As they worked, lifting fish from the cold waters, the ice they were standing on broke free and began to float off into the lake. The waters were so cold it was impossible for them to swim for safety. Six died, from the cold or from falling into the water. The other forty were left, floating on the lake, waiting to meet a similar fate.

That the forty fishermen survived was thanks to a shift in the wind, which began to move the ice floe back towards the shore. Once back on dry land the fisherman decided to build a chapel in thanks to their miraculous survival, and they built it on the hill that looked down on where they had returned to shore, so that it could continue to watch over the fishermen of the Balaton from that point on.

It was hard to imagine the lake frozen as we sat there on the picnic table beneath Christ on the cross and the tower of St Michael’s chapel. There seemed little movement on the lake as the sun rose higher in the late morning sky. But the church on the hill stood there as a reminder, not only of those who survived that winter’s day, but those that hadn’t been so lucky to be saved by the changing wind.

About the author:
Paul Scraton is the editor in chief of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place. Paul’s book Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic coast is out now, published by Influx Press.

Like Home

In our home town of Berlin, Catherine Marshall visits an exhibition that explores notions of place and home through the work of different artists:

In a grand corner apartment block in Berlin’s Mitte near Friedrichstraße, eleven artists with a connection to South America and Berlin have set up temporary home, or ‘Like Home” as the exhibition is titled. It is organised by the project Loop Raum, and the focus of the work is on abstraction, patterning, repetition and colour. Visiting it transported me back to the time of abundant unrenovated spaces in Berlin, where you might come across pop-up exhibitions in unusual places and have the pleasure of discovering the unexpected. Stepping into the the first-floor apartment where the exhibition is held, the space exudes the former grandeur of its Grunderzeit architecture with its high ceilings, intricate stucco and beautiful parquet flooring. At the same time, the rooms are damp and cold in places, the corridors are quite spooky and maze-like and plaster lies exposed with remnants of wallpaper from bygone years. We start to explore.

 Carla Guagliardi / "O Lugar do ar" (The place of air)

Carla Guagliardi / "O Lugar do ar" (The place of air)

In the first room, we see a delicate kinetic sculpture of iron rods supported by rubber bands that crisscross the entire room by the Brazilian artist Carla Guagliardi.  A piece called "O Lugar do ar" (The place of air), its structure imposes a new language over the room with its potential to shift and change shape. It's material and formal abstraction is incongruous to the historicist style of the room, yet it reinvents it. It is not solid and fixed, yet it has a strong presence. When we endeavour to make a new city feel like home, we wish to carve out a space for ourselves, both physically and mentally. Due to economic necessity, a transient way of life can also become a permanent state.

We turn the corner down a long corridor where a small drawing by Columbian artist Carlos Silva from his ‘Mazy Drawing’ series hangs. Its overlapping squares of blue ink appear to have been made with a scraping technique. The wall it hangs on carries its own marks: Swathes of white filler on plywood and torn wallpaper edges. The work draws attention to the layers of workmanship and materials of the flat itself. In this show, many of the artworks resonate with the apartment itself, its ghosts and history, making us question who might have lived here. It reminds us also that home is never static, is not just located in place but also in time. 

 Carlos Silva / "Mazy Drawing II"

Carlos Silva / "Mazy Drawing II"

Leaving the corridor, Chilean artistGonzalo Reyes Araos’ grid-like “RGB Painting” revels in glitches that might appear on a computer screen, except that this is reproduced here meticulously in paint. It’s as if the romantic landscape genre of the eighteenth century practiced by artists such as Caneletto has been updated. Instead of architectural ruins we have crumbling technology. Have we passed the threshold where our home screens feel more like home than our actual home?

Other works in the show play with optical illusion, geometric forms and seem to want to reach beyond the boundaries possible between four walls or even within the limits of their own frames. Carla Bertone’s colourful painting ‘Turgoxid’ looks as if origami paper has been folded and refolded in a quest to reach the limits imposed by the square, if there are any. Maria Muroz’s “Lemniscata” is a play on the mathematical symbol of an infinity loop. Close up, however the progression of colour through the figure of eight is not so straightforward. New angles and colours become apparent, questioning our own logic.

When you move city or country or live between places then perhaps there is ‘no place like home’. Instead it is something better, a plurality of homes, experiences, memories, friends and origins. We have moved on from Dorothy’s trance-line repetitions of “there is no place like home” as she returns to her Kansas’ origin. We prefer the uncertainty of Oz, and its new possibilities. In ‘Like Home’ I felt these artists might enjoy that notion too.

The exhibition ‘Like Home’ has been extended to July 21 and has been expanded to include an additional fifteen more artists. It can be seen at GLINT, Glinkastraße 17, 10117. The show was originally paired with another project called ‘No Place’ with the joint title ‘No place/ Like Home’

From Travail to Travel

By Ian C Smith:

On Saturday mornings in post-war London he thrills to the idea of escape.  For sixpence he sees a hero, dressed more like a movie star than a cowboy, elude a dull-witted gang, sidling from a spot tighter than his belt and boots, while the juvenile audience, escaped from grey boredom, jeers hoarsely.

Freedom: scheming prisoner motivation, the door left unlocked, exit road snaking away to the hills, or shaking off hounds by crossing streams, or the fairground life, always moving on, appeals, his hourglass almost done, parents edging closer to learning of his shoplifting, their emigration to Australia offering him an escape tunnel.

Vanished people intrigue: a car stranded under a tree, keys no longer swaying, silence, the stars, restless wind, the only witnesses; fresh starts, no difficult goodbyes, off to find Utopias gloved in dreams.  Isolated Australians’ penchant for flying overseas triggers his idealised self as a secretive drifter who makes unscheduled stops.

Travelling light to New Zealand where the South Pacific, Tahiti, await, island hopping the Dateline, splendour beckoning beyond dock lights, then hitch-hiked highways, youth hostels somewhere in America, this yearning for other lives, his homing instinct, exempts him from worn out love, income addiction, the fetid weight of a wasted life.     

About the author:
Ian C Smith’s work has appeared in, Antipodes, Australian Book Review, Australian Poetry Journal,  Critical Survey,  Prole,  The Stony Thursday Book, & Two-Thirds North.  His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra (Port Adelaide).  He writes in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, and on Flinders Island, Tasmania.

Late of Kings Turning

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By David Lewis:

One grey day in early summer I found myself unexpectedly alone, so I stole a long day to go walking and exploring.  The town was quiet and warm, and the air was scented with the rich musk of lilac and a soft suggestion of wisteria.  Great pale purple bunches hung over the road and curved gently across the faces of old houses.  The country lanes were bordered by long grasses and frothy, gentle wild flowers - cow parsley, herb Robert, buttercups.  The hedge thickened around an overgrown brick step and a sturdy white iron gate, as the ground rose into the cemetery.

We all have cemetery stories, ancestor tales.  My maternal grandparents and great grandparents are buried in a sloping graveyard overlooking the Welsh town of Llangollen, but my Lewis ancestors were either cremated or lie in an unmarked grave in Toxteth Cemetery, Liverpool.  There is a poetry in these places, the poetry of time and loss and hope, stories told in grass or written on stone pages.  Far from being depressing places, cemeteries are full of wildflowers and a rich meditative silence broken only by the birds.

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This was a very Protestant cemetery and I saw only one Catholic crucifix on my slow walk.  Carved from the local grey-brown stone, the heavy Victorian headstones were sombrely decorated with calligraphy and curlicues rather than angels, although many headstones wore small panels of spring flowers, symbolic of Easter and the Resurrection, an eternal stone garden mirroring the lush greenery in the hedgerows outside.  The headstones’ crisp edges had been softened by a hundred Welsh winters, and names and dates were fading beneath lichens and mosses.  As a landscape it was defined by giant yew trees, dark and gloomy, beneath which the grave plots were widely spaced, a lawn sprinkled with tombs.  Gothic ironwork disappeared into thick ivy; older tombs were smothered by wild undergrowth.  There were more Celtic crosses than in an English cemetery, but very few Welsh inscriptions.

Yet the stories reached back through time to the landscape around the town.  Older graves were often carved with the names of large houses, hill farms and town houses, places I passed daily.  Bridge House, Stapleton Court, Tan House.  Late of Kings Turning, read one.  In this border cemetery the names were Welsh and English – Hatfield, Davies, Jones and Roberts – and I found many Thomas Lewises, my paternal great grandfather in that unmarked Liverpool grave.  Many families were haunted by infant mortality, the children’s lives cut short which sadden all visitors to a nineteenth-century graveyard.

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But in rural Wales, the dead are part of the stories of the living and old stories fade slowly.  King’s Turning is a bend in the road, a field, a footpath on the outskirts of town, named for a fleeting visit by Charles 1st, so the story goes.  Welsh family storytelling creates a weave of story unconnected to chronological time, in which the dead are present through story and anecdote.  In Wales, as in William Faulkner’s Deep South, the past isn’t dead, it’s not even the past.

David Lewis has written five books of history/landscape/psychogeography about his native Liverpool and Merseyside.  He posts urban/rural images on Instagram - davidlewis4168 and mutters about the world on Twitter - @dlewiswriter

Postcard from... Cafe Leopold, Mumbai

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By Marcel Krueger:

In the sweaty humid madness of the cyberpunk city that is Mumbai, where 60-storey skyscrapers rise into the night sky behind crumbling British colonial buildings and where men with typewriters and computers sit in little wooden booths offering letter writing and translation services on the streets, Café Leopold has been haunted by generations of foreigners. Lonely Planet calls it a ‘clichéd Mumbai travellers’ institution’, and it features heavily in Gregory David Roberts’ 2003 novel ‘Shantaram’, about an Australian hiding from the authorities in Mumbai and a staple in the literary diet of backpackers coming to India – they even sell it at the counter in the café.

The café itself however does not seem to live up to its reputation. Its small entrance is almost completely immersed in the tourist infrastructure of the equally touristy Colaba Causeway, the main street of this southern Mumbai neighbourhood. It’s flanked by small stalls and shops selling trinkets, fake jewellery, smart phone covers and T-shirts, and only the two security guards wearing ‘Leopold’-T-shirts at the entrance give it away (and check your bags for dangerous items). What I like about the place is its matter-of-factness. Despite being in business since 1871, there is no European café grandeur amidst the languid air pushed around by the many ceiling fans on the ground floor, only Indians and foreigners, backpackers and businessmen who come here for cheap food, cakes and cold beer.

Maybe it is this matter-of-factness that made it one of the targets in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, when the attackers sprayed the café with bullets from their AK-47s, killing ten guests and injuring many more. Some of the bullet holes can still be seen in the walls, between old beer advertisements and Pulp Fiction posters. Café Leopold defiantly re-opened only four days after the attack, and I for one believe that cold beer and cake will always beat terrorists and their bullets.  

Beacon Bound, Part II: Remnants

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In memory of his grandfather, Nicholas Herrmann walks the length of The Ridgeway: an ancient road stretching for eighty-seven miles across chalk downland, from Overton Hill to Ivinghoe Beacon. We will be following Nicholas’ journey here on the Elsewhere blog over the next couple of months.

‘The farewell was beautiful.’

These are the first words of Trouble With Lichen, John Wyndham’s 1960 novel about an antidote to old age. I’ve brought it with me to read on the journey – twenty miles further to the edge of the North Wessex Downs. John, my grandfather, was a keen reader of science fiction, and we bonded over this shared love in recent years. He had a soft spot for authors from the Golden Age: Asimov, Christopher, Clarke. Wyndham was a favourite, and as I address this gap in my knowledge on the morning of the walk, I think I can see why: the rigorous attention to scientific detail, the careful, complex female characters, the disconcerting ring of truth.

I’m thinking of immortality as we step onto the Ridgeway. The path carries us in a curve around Ogbourne St. George – a place unrecognisable since we were last here. The air is heavy with blossom and birdsong, lambs bleating in a nearby field. Green tangles of cleaver, nettle and fern spill off the banks. Everywhere the trees are fluorescent and full. We’ve left winter behind us, somewhere among the sarsens of Fyefield and Avebury. My father and I pick a couple of the young beech leaves – a food that sustained the partisans of Yugoslavia as they resisted the Germans during the Second World War. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a partisan. This was his relationship to the land: survival. The taste of the leaf is strong but not unpleasant, a grassiness giving way to the tang of green apple.

We cross over the clear waters of the Og. A dozen swifts dart high above the water, feeding, or playing, or simply celebrating their homecoming after a long journey back from Africa. Their movements are sharp and delicate, like paper aeroplanes brought to life. The trail cuts through a thatch of cottages, and over an A-road, until finally the path grows steeper and we’re climbing free from civilisation. Seams of chalk appear in the earth as we ascend onto the ridge, blending with the white of the blackthorn.

It’s good to be on the old road again, so high above the world. As we find our stride, I have to relearn the landscape, vernal now – budding, noisy and bright. Linnets kiss behind clumps of gorse. Larks shout down from the clouds. Rapeseed ignites the fields and fills the air with musk. We even pass through wooded sections this time, where bluebells colour the ground beneath canopies of luminous green.

I walk a few paces with closed eyes and held breath: nothing but nature.

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The path takes us north through wheat fields to Liddington Hill. We make a short detour off the path to our second Iron Age hillfort. Liddington Castle feels more compact than the one at Barbury, and more formidable. It looms on the very edge of the downs’ northern escarpment, with dominating views across the valley: the M4 meandering below, Swindon’s hospital and wind farm rendered miniature.

In 1884, Richard Jefferies put the final touches on what would become one of his last works. The nature writer and novelist had been suffering from tuberculosis for years, and was near destitute after paying for a number of unsuccessful surgeries. His life during this period was hellish. Delirious, starving and in constant agony, he could barely sit up to write. Yet somehow, three years before his death, he managed to get his late masterpiece on paper: a post-apocalyptic vision of the aftermath of an unnamed disaster that causes the country to ‘relapse into barbarism.’ In After London, Jefferies poured his love of nature, his knowledge of the countryside, and his suspicion of the city to describe a world reverted to medievalism. ‘It became green everywhere in the first spring, after London ended,’ he writes, ‘so that all the country looked alike.’ Forest once again covers the land. An enormous lake forms in the country’s centre. Where there once was a metropolis, there exists only a vast swamp exuding ‘so fatal a vapour that no animal can endure it.’ London has become a nature-less nightmare: ‘There are no fishes, neither can eels exist in the mud, nor even newts. It is dead.’

Jefferies was born within sight of these hills, in a farmhouse in the hamlet of Coate, now part of Swindon. He wrote extensively about the surrounding area, and would often walk up to Liddington Castle in the heat of summer to lie on the embankments and observe the behaviour of skylarks. Standing here now, on top of ancient earthworks, it’s easy to understand the genesis of Jefferies’ pioneering novel – imagining people alone so long ago, young and unencumbered, looking out at a landscape free from rape fields and power stations. Making my way back to the trail, I wonder if John had a copy of After London in his collection, dog-eared and yellowed, tucked on a bookshelf beside The Day of the Triffids.

Nearby is another fortification, but from a time far more recent. Marauded by multicolours of graffiti and lichen, a concrete bunker squats beneath Liddington Clump, on the hill’s eastern summit. It’s a control bunker from a Second World War ‘Starfish’ site – elaborate systems of light and fire designed with the help of film industry technicians to look like blitzed cities from above, devised after the decimation of Coventry in 1940. This one controlled a simulated Swindon, triggering nighttime blazes to divert the wrath of the Luftwaffe. The bunker demonstrates the Ridgeway’s power and pull – its quiet ability to whisk you between eras, usher you quickly through time.

From here, the path leads us down the hill to join a main road and cross over the M4. It’s a strange stretch, with no clear way for walking, and we flinch as cars speed by. I stop on the overpass and look down at the galloping machines. It’s a shock to the system, but I’m glad the road is part of our journey – it’s one that has run through my life for as long as I can remember. It was one of the first seams, by which everything else was joined. It connects almost all the places I’ve ever lived.

We are obsessed by roads. They have a way of getting under the skin, tunnelling close to the heart. We have a strange capacity to love them – a propensity to personify them, bestow them with mythical qualities. About roads, we sing, and write and reminisce. They represent the torment of our innate desire for freedom.

At last, we’re climbing to the hush of the hills, the trail becoming a level section leading us out of Wiltshire and into Oxfordshire, the second of the Ridgeway’s five counties. New shoots tinge a ploughed field with otherworldly green. Podgy bullfinches crowd the path past Idstone, their plaintive whistles following us from every tree. Above, the sky gathers and threatens to fall, but something holds it at bay. The world is suspended in a paradox of gold and grey, dark clouds hanging over irradiant rape, cowslips, gorse.

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*

The next day is littered with landmarks. They huddle above Uffington, mystifying. We pass Wayland’s Smithy first, a long barrow nestled in beech and encircled by sarsens. Named by the Saxons around 4,000 years after it was first built, the barrow was believed to have been the home of the eponymous god of metalworking – maker of wings and magic swords. I climb inside. It’s quiet under the earth, the hill dampening the bustle of spring. The chamber smells of mud and root. The previous day’s walk has inflamed a tendon in my ankle, and I find myself communing with age-old powers. Legend has it Wayland reshoes horses tethered here overnight. I beseech the barrow to restore me.

Onwards a while and I’m faltering up another earthwork: the ramparts of Uffington Castle. As always, sheep graze along the embankments, and the wind seeks to bear me aloft. The Iron Age hillfort feels like the highest point so far, towering above the Vale of White Horse, and commanding a 360-degree panorama: the wind turbines of Swindon, the hazy outline of the Cotswolds beyond; patchwork fields leading eastward to Wittenham Clumps and the hyperboloid cooling towers of Didcot Power Station; the Chilterns in the distance.

Lifting my hood against the wind, I descend to one of the country’s most recognisable landmarks, carved into this hillside over 3,000 years ago. Like so many things along the Ridgeway, the purpose of its existence has long been forgotten. From where I’m standing it’s no more than a few abstract lines. But from the villages down in the Vale, these curves become an enormous chalk horse – so vivid and prominent that at the same time a counterfeit Swindon was being built on Liddington Hill, and resistance fighters were eating beech leaves half a world away, the creature had to be concealed with turf and hedge trimmings to prevent it from being seen by enemy aircraft. It lies on its flank across the northern escarpment of the downs, aged and weary.

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Escarpment. Scarp. These are the scars from wounds inflicted on the land millions of years ago. The chalk that gleams in every gash is made from the shells of coccolithophores – minute plankton that dwelt in the Cretaceous seas once covering Britain. As the African and Eurasian plates collided, a tremendous storm of earthquakes altered sea levels and heaved the strata into high hills and mountains. Gradually, ice, wind and rain whittled these down to their smooth and familiar contours. This same tectonic movement forced into existence the ranges along the Alpide belt – including the Atlas, Alps, Himalayas and Pyrenees – and still continues today. As I stand on the very edge of the escarpment, on the remnants of prehistoric sea creatures, I try to sense the earth shifting beneath me, raising me into the sky.

I turn my back on the horse, the castle and Dragon Hill – the site where Saint George supposedly slew the beast. The weight of this place is almost too much to bear, and it’s a relief to once again feel the road beneath my boots, the home stretch somewhere ahead of me.

We make tracks along the ridge and past the stables of Lambourn: racehorse country. The way is high and open, the view across the Vale following us for miles. Three kites tumble above one of the trig points that dot the landscape, the whiteness of their underwings flashing against the sky. The downy leaves of silverweed glint beneath us. Roman soldiers used this plant to soothe their feet on long marches – I consider stopping to stuff my boots, but the sky is growing ever heavier, a few drops starting to fall. We quicken our pace, heads angled against a northerly wind.

Slowly, we leave Swindon behind, the forests beginning to thicken in the valley below. The next stage will take us out of the Berkshire Downs to the wooded doorstep of the Chilterns. Thirty miles covered, now – a third of the way to the Beacon.

We stumble back to the car windburnt, with cracked lips.

And finally, as we join the M4 heading east, the heavens open.

Nicholas Herrmann is a writer and photographer based in Bath. His work has appeared in journals and online, and his writing has been shortlisted for the Bath Novel Award and Janklow and Nesbit Prize. He is a graduate of the Creative Writing MA at Bath Spa University. He is currently working on his first novel. You can find him on Twitter: @NickPSH.

The Young Biologists

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By Kate Rogers:

They are in Hong Kong
four days only,
found my hiking group online.
They are surprised
by the highland city-state,
its emerald cleavage
of valleys,
swaying stands of bamboo.
Meiying—small, eyes soap-stone grey—
tells me,
Mother is Chinese. I’ve never met my father—
some garden variety white guy—
in Asia long enough
to find love.

Boyfriend Bogdan
is six feet—twice Meiying’s height.
Born in Russia. Straw
blond. Silent.
Both American now.
At Harvard.
I admire their confidence, their curiosity
about spiders the same breadth
as Bogdan’s hand.
He crouches so she can
straddle his shoulders
to snap a close-up
of the spider’s silk mandala.

Swallows stoop low
over the dirt trail,
sipping mosquitoes.
I stutter to Meiying
in seldom used Mandarin,
Yenzi lai li [i]
The Swallows Return.
She smiles.

At a village of tin shacks
we stop for bowls of Tofu-fa
with ginger syrup. The tofu quivers
like soft-boiled egg white
on our bone china spoons.
The server shuffles like my mother,
dowager’s hump heavy
on her slight frame.
She points to green fingered bananas
on a weathered plank table.
Meiying buys one.

Back on the tree-shaded trail
Meiying and Bogdan spot
katydid uniquely spiked
and caterpillars blushing pink
in the middle
like ripening watermelons.
The Young Biologists
hope to identify a new species.
I list British colonial names
from my guide, Hong Kong Butterflies:
Paris Peacock, Chocolate Pansy,
Painted Lady.
Meiying and Bogdan laugh.

I scoop a butterfly I do not recognise
from a leaf in the teeth of the wind.
Hold its ragged wings
in a loose fist.
The butterfly tickles my palm
(sipping sweat?)
I glimpse scattered cells
of blue light.

Hiking, my hips rotate
in sockets brittle as fossil insects
suspended mid-leap in sap,
shellacked. I spy a two-legged stick-
insect limping like a pilgrim
across the hard mud trail.
Meiying and Bogdan each take a photo
of it teetering on Meiying’s palm.
We emerge from trees
to asphalt path. Our pace slows.
The blue butterfly
flutters on my palm—
lover’s eyelashes against my skin.
We trade nature tales:
I recall a leopard cat—
wild feline that fixed me in its amber gaze,
sleek as it paddled a marsh pond.
Meiying recounts the torpor
of a hibernating hummingbird
huddled in the barbed
mouth of a Mojave cactus.
We do not wish to part,
standing near the steps
into the train tunnel.
The ground trembles, a train
clanks onto the tracks.
I show them—in the cage of my fingers—
the torn blue butterfly.
They nod. I open my hand.

About the poet:
Kate Rogers was shortlisted for the 2017 Montreal International Poetry Prize. She has work forthcoming in Catherines, the Great (Oolichan). Her poems have appeared in Twin Cities Cinema (Hong Kong-Singapore); Juniper; Cha: An Asian Literary Journal; The Guardian; Asia Literary Review and other publications. Out of Place, Kate’s latest poetry collection, is reviewed here.

[i] Literal: the swallows return. Idiomatic: Spring is back.

Seven Sisters

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Sussex's white cliffs are something else: steep rolling waves of white, seven in a row. I'm with friends, walking straightish route 14 miles along the coast from Seaford to Eastbourne. It’s the first walk back after winter, and the simplest, easiest and least ambitious escape I could make. Whatever it is, though, I need it. The walk grabs all the energy my lazy London arse could muster for a sunny Saturday. I could have been lying in my garden all day, sitting up only to drink another tinny. Instead I struggle four hours in dusty walking boots towards my destination: a cold shandy.

I've been at work all week, fingers tripping the keyboard and feet tucked under the desk. The newspaper’s been an endless churn of stories about the Home Office, and its new assault on the Windrush generation. Objective: getting out of my head. Here are waves of turf. Here is a beach cut in half by a river. Here the sea makes chalky plumes. Walls of green grass ride up and fill my gaze and cliffs of white chalk soar up from short backshores. Out there, the big blue Channel spindles out to the horizon. The view is huge and the walk is satisfying. Within half an hour, my hamstrings ache and the back of my T-shirt is damp with sweat.

In Kent, Dover's cliffs are just outside the sea port. They run white and constant, at a uniform height. (UKIP once ran an anti-immigration poster showing escalators running to their tops). From the sea, the cliffs are a picture of high-walled Britain. Now, even inside Fortress Britain, a dreading vertigo grows. Whenever you came, whatever your standing in the community, the Home Office can still pull the rug from under you. Uneasy residents cloak discrimination with the state-sanctioned term, ‘hostile environment’: in reality this means putting ‘Go Home’ vans on the roads, deporting survivors of abuse and torture, and forcing teachers, doctors and the general public to police one another’s immigration status. It wouldn't take much for us to fling you out, the tactics say. To even third- and fourth-generation Britons, people still ask: no, but, where are you really from…

Between Seaford and Eastbourne stand England’s other 'white cliffs'. The Seven Sisters come in waves. Peaks trade with dips, where shingle beaches and gaps let us down to the sea. The current of chalk swells and dwindles. At times, the cliffs stand unassailable; at others, the land admits a fault. But at every point along the path, whether high or low, you can see the line of the land in flux.

In 'Wanderlust', Rebecca Solnit writes: "When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back; the more one comes to know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for when you come back, while new places offer up new thoughts, new possibilities. Exploring the world is one the best ways of exploring the mind, and walking travels both terrains.”

What happens when the place you give yourself to, gives nothing back? What happens when someone else harvests 'the invisible crop of memories' you sowed, weeded and watered? I cannot write about these white cliffs without writing about those white cliffs. We read the landscape, and the landscape reads us. The coastline changes and our landscapes retake us.

Ellie Broughton is a writer from London and wrote for Elsewhere No.04. On Twitter she's @__ellie

Do writers need a nationality?

 Photo: Chris Gilbert

Photo: Chris Gilbert

By Vesna Main:

I am a Croatian writer. At least that’s what I was called in recent reviews of my debut collection of short stories. As a writer trying to find an audience, believe me, I am pleased that anyone would write about my work, but I baulked at this apparent identification of me, a writer, with a nation. Yes, I was born in Zagreb and lived there until my early twenties. Does that make me a Croatian writer?

I write in English. I write in English because that is the language I fell in love with when I first read Shakespeare. I write in English because that is the language I know better than any other. Does that make me an English writer?

I have lived in Europe and in Africa. Now, after almost four decades in Britain, I am fortunate to be able to divide my time between England and France. I feel comfortable in both countries because I appreciate their respective cultures, by which I mean their art and literature. But I do not belong to either.  In fact, I have never felt a sense of belonging to any country or nation. WG Sebald’s narrator in Vertigo speaks for me when he says that when it comes to nations, it is best to be associated with ‘none at all’. Similarly, Virginia Woolf writes that ‘as a woman I have no country. As a woman, I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.’

I am proud to be a citizen of the world, one of those eternal wanderers, Ahasueruses of this world who, as our Prime Minister asserted, sending chills down our spines as her words echoed Nazis’ view of the Jews, are citizens of nowhere. In fact, I am puzzled by narratives of belonging. For me, the story of Odysseus is a happy one, but not because the hero returns home safely to Ithaka, rather because, as the Alexandrian Greek poet Cavafy teaches us, ‘Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey’. It is the journey and the wandering that matter, not the return home. After all, I don’t think of home as a place, or a geographical region. Therefore, it can be anywhere and nowhere.

When it comes to literature, the love of my life, I feel closest to contemporary European writing, particularly French and German and, if pushed, would admit to their influence on my work. In fact, it is this sense of not belonging to a nation or a country, this sense of strangeness, I would argue, that feeds my writing. My alienation brings about my voice, my perspective on what I write and my relationship with the language.

So, what is it, I wondered, that is supposed to make me a Croatian writer?  What is it that makes most people insist on a label of nationality? Is it simply a shorthand to enable communication? Or is it an expression of a belief that everyone ought to belong to a nation and that those who do not are somehow morally deficient and untrustworthy?

As serendipity would have it, while in my teens, struggling with The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, I came across a phrase by Ignatius Sancho, an eighteenth-century freed slave, born to a captured West African woman on the notorious middle passage, and later a resident of Westminster. Writing a letter to the author of the novel, his friend Laurence Sterne, Sancho remarked that he didn’t wish to express an opinion on a particular political issue since he was ‘only a lodger…and hardly that.’ The words accurately described my own feelings about the place where I was born and where I grew up. Despite my comfortable middle-class existence and a loving family, my home felt temporary, a place that I knew I was bound to leave. But Sancho’s words made me understand I didn’t have to belong; it was fine to be a lodger, free of national allegiance, free to choose a culture, a country, a language and, by implication, an identity. Katja Petrowskaya, whose first language is Russian, writes in Maybe Esther, a wonderful text written in German, that we should not be ‘defined by our living and dead relatives and where they resided, but by means of our language’.  And in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man, Stephen Dedalus claims that ‘nationality, language, religion’ are constraints. He vows to ‘fly by those nets’. I vowed the same. While nationality was not an issue for me – my passport was only an aid to help with international bureaucracy – I flew ‘by the net’ in choosing to write in English, a language I was not born into. This choice, deliberate and voluntary, resulted from my determination not to be trapped or pigeonholed in a particular historical and cultural context. I wished to construct my chosen identity by rejecting those I had been saddled with. As Thomas Bernhard writes, ’we can leave our place of birth if it threatens to suffocate us’.

My alienation from what was reckoned to be my native country, and from my fellow nationals, extended to everywhere and everyone. I have never been anything but a lodger in all the places I have ever lived. There were only occasional moments, fleeting, like a dream, existing more in time than in space, when I glimpsed the possibility of home or the recognition of something familiar, such as where I found myself face to face with another human being who shared my passion for a painting or a text. I felt at home when in Zagreb a sculptor friend, Ivan Lesiak, took me to see Andrei Rublev, soon after my seventeenth birthday, or when another friend, years later in London, introduced me to the work of Chris Marker and we watched La Jetée. I was in ‘my own country’ at those moments with the people who shared my interests. And here I am reminded of the words of the poet Ezra Pound, who was displaced in more than the usual sense, and who writes of being ‘homesick after my own kind’, or feeling ‘wistful for my kin of the spirit’. Similarly, Robert Walser writes that ‘one belongs in the place one longs for.’

At university, in Zagreb, in love with Shakespeare, I had a brief fantasy that his country was my imaginary home. That notion was soon dispelled when as a postgraduate in England, I felt lonely and lost outside my privileged enclave of Elizabethan studies. However, far from my displacement bothering me, I remembered the words of Sancho and I accepted my alienation as part of who I am. But I also learned not to disagree with the old ladies on city buses who started a conversation and said that I must be homesick. In their eyes, only a monster wouldn’t miss their country. There would have been no point in my telling them I aspired to Roderigo’s apparently derogatory description of Othello as ‘an extravagant and wheeling stranger of here and everywhere’.

If you still feel I should belong somewhere, I have good news: as I have been suggesting, I have at last found a country, an elusive, attractive place which obsesses me, which fills my days with meaning, which I love and where, for the first time, I feel ‘at home’. I write. Writing is my country. It took me a while to find an entry point. I feared becoming lost, if not expelled in shame, labelled a failure. Worst of all, I didn’t have a language in which to write since I had stopped reading in Croatian, my first language, many years ago. At the same time, I didn’t dare write in English. Eventually, twenty years ago, I threw caution to the wind (I could always fail better, as I learned from another displaced writer) and embarked on a life-long journey. Like every journey, it has its challenges, its wrong turnings, pleasures and frustrations, and it often brutally exposes my shortcomings. But I carry on.

My fellow nationals are other writers, some published, some toiling in patient obscurity. I have chosen to belong with them. And if you ask me whether I miss this country of writers on the days when life intervenes, yes, absolutely, I do. I am ‘normal’, after all.

My favourite writers of the twentieth century – who include Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, WG Sebald and Gabriel Josipovici – are lodgers too, displaced in one direction or another. Not belonging exclusively to the literary tradition of their birth countries, whether or not resident there, they operate in the space created by the difference between the native and the foreign, between the established, the dominant, and the predictable on the one hand, and the alternative, the marginal, the unforeseen on the other.

None of the characters I create in my novels or short stories is me, but I share with them their sense of alienation, the feeling of being citizens of everywhere and nowhere. What guides the lives of the protagonists of my short stories, what makes them ‘belong’, is a passion. An ex-prostitute dedicates herself to helping young women escape her former trade; her work is driven by a deferred maternal instinct, a wish to protect the daughter she lost to adoption from the fate of her own youth. An elderly man pursues his obsession for collecting books until they literally squeeze him out of existence. A woman bakes all day, hoping that somebody will turn up to share her cakes and pastries, but ends up carrying them to the park for the ducks. A concert-goer recognises the face of a man sitting next to her as a face from her memory and cannot bear the thought that she will never see him again.

It seems appropriate that The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, the text that exiles the reader to a position of permanent uncertainty, led me to Sancho who, in turn, made me recognise my status as a lodger. More than a hundred years after Sterne’s death, Nietzsche still considered him ‘the most liberated spirit of our time’. I wonder what the novelist would have made of our Prime Minister’s strictures about citizenship.  

This from a Croatian writer.       

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About the author:

Vesna Main was born in Zagreb, Croatia, where she studied comparative literature before obtaining a doctorate from the Shakespeare Institute in Birmingham, England.  She was a lecturer at universities in Nigeria and the UK and has worked at the BBC She has written articles, reviews and short stories for daily newspapers and literary journals.

She has had two novels published. A collection of short stories, Temptation: A User’s Guide, was brought out by Salt in 2018 and you find out more and order direct from the publisher here.

She lives in London and writes in English, her second language.