Life and Death and the Walls of Weetabix: A walk up Glasgow's High Street

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By James Carson:

It’s best to stop at the lights. With traffic coming from all directions, the slightest trip could put me in hospital. But it’s too long a wait for one young lad, who strikes out for the other side, ignoring the blitz of angry beeps. Beside me, a baldy bloke with hairy ears glares at the youngster, who’s now happily powering up High Street.

“Obviously trying to make a statement,” he says, eyebrows twitching. “And the statement is he’s a dickhead.”

I’m at Glasgow Cross, once the bustling centre of a medieval burgh. Today, the fish and cloth traders of old are long gone, replaced by pubs and pawnbrokers, chip shops and bookies. 

It’s the last day of winter. Tonight, the golden hands on the face of the old tolbooth clock tower will be wound forward into British Summer Time. As ever, Mother Nature is one step ahead. This afternoon, Glasgow is wearing her spring collection: a cloak of yellow sunlight, with matching cerulean sky, accessorised by feathery white clouds.

To the south of Glasgow Cross lie Saltmarket and the River Clyde; to the east is Glasgow Green – the city’s oldest park. And westward is Argyle Street, a place of pilgrimage for those who worship at the church of St Marks (and Spencer). But today I’m heading north, up High Street. It’s a road well-travelled; I often use it as a shortcut when I’m in a hurry. Today I’m taking my time.

The 120-foot clock tower at Glasgow Cross was once attached to the tolbooth, a multipurpose building whose functions included town hall, jail and reading room. Perhaps most importantly, the tolbooth was a gathering place, a stage for the mercantile glitterati to see and be seen. It was built in 1626, the same year as the finishing touches were being put to the new St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. But while St Peter’s endures, Glasgow’s tolbooth was demolished in the 1920s, one of many fine buildings the city fathers have sacrificed to the wrecking ball. Only the slender clock tower remains, marooned on its own little island as Glasgow flows around it.

History is in the stones of this quarter, and in the street names: Brunswick Street recalls the House of Hanover; Blackfriars Street is named after an order of Dominican priests who founded a church near here in 1248.

High Street gets its name from the High Kirk, better known today as Glasgow Cathedral, which crowns the top of the street. If this were Bordeaux, say, or Zagreb, this quarter would be known as ‘The Old Town’, with quirky little shops selling vegan shortbread, clock tower fridge magnets and inflatable kilts made in China. There would be restaurants with buxom wenches in authentic medieval smocks, serving authentic medieval haggis. A historical tramcar would jangle its way up and down the street, ferrying tourists from Baltimore and Brisbane. 

On the lower reaches of High Street, the vibe is very different from this imagined world. People are doing Saturday afternoon things: football fans on their way to the match, students brunching on sausage rolls. There’s a Turkish restaurant (“opening soon”), a pub (closed), a charity shop (closed down), a bedding store, another pub, student flats and another pub.

Actually, not just another pub. A sign outside declares it to be Glasgow’s oldest, dating from 1515. This is a bit of creative PR on the part of the owner. The bar actually dates from the 19th century, although its shabby appearance wouldn’t look out of place in The Flintstones.

The pub may be nothing to look at, but its neighbour is a real beauty. With a two-storey step gable and a gorgeous little domed canopy (a tempietto, if you please), the former British Linen Bank building is like an exotic fusion of Amsterdam townhouse and Mughal temple. It stands now in solitary confinement, badly in need of some TLC.

In fact, this whole stretch of High Street feels rundown, although little shops are doing their best to cheer things up (“The Best Steak Pie in Glasgow!”). It’s possible that Billy Connolly was thinking of this very spot when he once mused that if a nuclear bomb ever fell on Glasgow, no-one would notice the difference afterwards. Since the Big Yin made that observation, much of the centre of Glasgow has been given a makeover, morphing from industrial relic to Barcelona of the north. Decades of grime were removed from civic buildings and a constellation of starchitects sprinkled the city with their fairy dust.

It’s been an impressive transition, and Glasgow has somehow managed to achieve it while retaining its essential character. It’s a city that can celebrate the great works by Van Gogh and Dali displayed in its galleries, while simultaneously applauding the artistic genius who used the medium of spray paint to declare that “Boris Johnson is a pure fanny.”

The final section of High Street curves round towards Cathedral Square. There are lots of empty properties here, but also a cluster of new-age businesses, dispensing everything from aromatherapy to tarot card readings. And there’s an off-licence, so if the cards say your future’s not looking rosy, you can quickly hit the rosé.

Above the shops, sturdy tenements in red sandstone lend an air of dignity to the street. If Toulouse is La Ville Rose, and Aberdeen is the Granite City, then Glasgow is simply red. The russet colour features strongly in tenements all over the city. They’re made from an iron-rich building material that dates back nearly 300 million years, when Scotland was covered by a vast desert. The same colour can be seen today in the sands of the Sahara that are sometimes carried by dust storms to fall on Glasgow as ‘blood rain’.

The vision of Glasgow Cathedral at the top of High Street is an uplifting moment. It was built between the 12th and 15th centuries, and is the only mainland Scottish cathedral to have survived the Reformation intact. The interior has soaring gothic arches and sublime stained glass. Below, the tomb of Glasgow’s sixth century founder, St Mungo, underlines its historical resonance. When it was completed, Pope Nicholas V declared that a pilgrimage to Glasgow Cathedral was the equal of one to Rome. It’s fabulously beautiful. 

Across the square, the Museum of Religious Life and Art is less so. Opened in 1993, it was intended to blend in with its venerable surroundings, but doesn’t quite get there. The exterior walls seem to have been crafted from breakfast cereal (it’s known locally as Fort Weetabix), and there’s a Disneyfied attempt at a bishop’s castle. The whole effect is less medieval masterpiece, more product of the muddle ages. I could spend the rest of the afternoon exploring its exhibits, but I’m enjoying the warmth of the sun on my face. It’s time to walk among the dead.

Glasgow’s Necropolis occupies a hill overlooking the cathedral, with panoramic views across the city. I feel at peace among the tended plots, but I’m not alone. The place is teeming with tombstone tourists, with voices from France and Germany, Poland and America.

Here, every stone tells a story; different circumstances, but always the same ending. Death at war, at sea, and all too often, in childbirth. Most of the permanent residents here are from well-heeled Victorian and Edwardian families – merchants and magnates, aristocrats and knights of the realm. But there are surprises, too: a Polish freedom fighter, the matriarch of a Gypsy dynasty; the first woman to graduate in medicine from Glasgow University. Even in a graveyard as grand as this, there are no answers to existential questions. Only an eternal verity: life goes on until, at some point, it doesn’t.

From up here, I can retrace my afternoon walk. I’ve only covered about half a mile, but I’ve reached across the centuries. It was the medieval High Street that nourished the relationship between the cathedral’s community at one end and the market traders at the other. Which is why, for all its faults, this stretch of land retains a special place in the city’s history and heart: no High Street, no Glasgow.

***

James Carson is a writer from Glasgow. His work has appeared in various magazines, including From Glasgow to Saturn, The Skinny and ExBerliner, and his stories have also been selected for anthologies such as Streets of Berlin, Tip Tap Flat and A Sense of Place.

Dispatches from Olsztyn: Olga Tokarczuk’s Chair

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By Marcel Krueger:

This year Marcel has been selected as the official writer in residence of Olsztyn in Poland by the German Culture Forum for Eastern Europe and until September he is living there, observing, taking part in cultural activities organised by local partners the City of Olsztyn and the Borussia Foundation, and of course writing about the city. You can find regular posts over on the official writer in residence blog in German, Englisch and Polish (thanks to his official translator a.k.a. Marcel’s Polish voice Barbara Sapala). But he has also been writing some  irregular dispatches from Olsztyn for the Elsewhere blog: 

In an interview with the Calvert Journal last year, writer Olga Tokarczuk expressed her shock about the age of the furniture that she discovered on an old Scottish estate where she stayed for a writers’ scholarship, some of it dating back as far as the 16th century. “We don’t have such a stable reality,” she said. “Poland is in the central corridor of Europe.”

This is a notion I concur with, living on an island. While Ireland has and had its fair share of violence and tragedy over the centuries, it often feels as if more objects and places have been given longevity, by fate or coincidence. On my street in Dundalk I have the bell tower of a Franciscan abbey built around 1240 AD, and the last time the building has seen targeted violence was around 1315 AD, when invading Scots under Edward the Bruce burned it and killed 23 monks. There are Victorian post boxes strewn around town that were erected in the second half of the 19th century and are still in use, the royal insignia clearly visible under the Republican green paint applied after 1921. There are plenty of hundred-year old tables and chairs still in use in households across town that are not in a museum.

It is different in Olsztyn. Here the tragedies and invasions feel more numerous, the past more unstable. Last week I walked around Park Jakubowo with radio journalist Alicja Kulik, and we talked about melancholy and what Olga Tokarczuk said in the interview. For me, the park provided an almost perfect cross section of the horrors that have visited the city, and I didn’t have to go back to the Middle Ages to find them. The park was first established in 1862 as part of the expansion of Olsztyn from a small provincial town to one of the main cities of the area thanks to Prussian railways and army barracks, and over the following years saw the erection of a panorama restaurant, a dance hall and tennis courts. 

Today it is a pleasant place to wander around in, with a small lake, playgrounds and tall trees providing shade in summer – the oldest tree here is an oak tree, 28 metres high. But even here the currents of history are visible, mostly through the buildings and memorials. The large green area across the street from the park used to be a Protestant cemetery that was closed in 1973 and turned into a park. The small neo-Gothic red-brick chapel that stands there was built in 1904 and is today the Orthodox Church of the Protection of the Mother of God. Right next to it is the memorial to Bogumił Linka (1865 -1920), a social and nationalist activist who campaigned for Warmia and Olsztyn to join the newly created Poland at the Versailles conference, and who was killed by a German militia during the 1920 East Prussian plebiscite. The memorial was created by sculptress Balbina Świtycz-Widacka and erected in 1975. Maybe fittingly so: back across the road, in 1928 the citizens of Allenstein erected the so-called Abstimmungsdenkmal, the memorial to the result of the plebiscite where the majority of the inhabitants voted for remaining in East Prussia and the German Reich. Together with a similar memorial in Malbork and the Tannenbergdenkmal Olsztynek it was one of the main nationalist memorial sites in East Prussia.

Across the street from it is a remainder of what extreme nationalism can result in: here lie those killed by the Nazis. Some of the people buried here were patients of the sanatorium in Kortau (location of the university today) and killed by the Nazis as part of their euthanasia programme, some were killed in sub-camps of the concentration camps across East Prussia. The remaining patients, staff and refugees that had gathered at Kortau were massacred in 1945 by the Red Army.

Back in the park, the Abstimmungsdenkmal was replaced by another memorial in 1972, a monumental slab commemorating the ‚Warmian-Masurian Heroes of the National and Social Liberation‘ created by local sculptor Bolesław Marschall. Down the road from the park, at the end of nearby Sybiraków street is a memorial to those Poles taken to work at the GULAG and forced labour camps all across the Soviet Union. It lists the places the people were sent to, among them Sverdlovsk in the Urals (Yekaterinburg today), where my granny was also sent from her farm on the outskirts of town.

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All these tragedies and horrors, and some people always trying to claim them for political gains. But I think there is a better use for the past and what it leaves from the people that were here before us. As Alicja and I continued on through the park, we walked past one of the playgrounds were a group of young children were playing noisily, the sun was shining and the park was beautiful. We stopped next to what looked like an old unused fountain, a stone bowl now empty of water but still looking beautiful. Alicja said that ‘maybe this is our version of Olga Tokarczuk’s chair’, and I think she was right. This then, perhaps, is a better way to look at the past. Regardless of who created it, we should be able to share the good things, without jealousy and hatred. A German or Jewish or Polish or Russian sculptor might have created the fountain, but I don’t know if this is relevant. It’s a beautiful old fountain in a nice park.

Sorbs, a poem by Alistair Noon

Spreewaldkanal by Lübbenau  – Photo by Dr Seuthberg – Used under  CC-BY-SA 4.0

Spreewaldkanal by Lübbenau – Photo by Dr Seuthberg – Used under CC-BY-SA 4.0

We meet where slow green water meshes
with swatting meadows. In Slavic shirts,
they hail our raid into well-drained marshes.

Traditional business here's to steer us
beneath the boughs and along the arms,
then serve us gherkins and farmyard stories,

to oar us up for open canoes
before we wrong-turn a channel
their land was left, and soak our knees.

Their teenagers bus to school in Cottbus,
grow up to squat the Berlin tenements.
Their roads are damp with moorhens and coots,

but expect their verse to trill with jays,
their dances to settle as colourful flocks.
They've cultural centres and anthologies.

And while the halls of greater states
proclaim their headlines and daytrip anecdotes,
right of the decimal point, the stats

ripple whenever they do the math
and discover Texas. Quaintly dressed,
the local tale is a pregnancy myth:

they got their Bible, but pools evaporate
where enlightened princes ban your books.
Now they build budgets and write their rights,

the woodlands where their nucleotides hid
are cleared for cattle, and only clutter
where leaves flop over our twig-dodging heads.

***

Alistair Noon's poetry collections include Earth Records (2012) and The Kerosene Singing (2015), both from Nine Arches Press. Concert at a Railway Station, his translations of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, was recently reviewed in the TLS. ‘Translocal Underground’, a short film about him by filmmaker Paul Cooke, appeared last year. He's lived in Berlin since the early 90s.

On Potsdamer Straße (to see an old friend)

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By Paul Scraton:

Potsdamer Straße talks to me, as I walk down from the S-Bahn, past the library and across the canal. It talks to me about the Joseph-Roth-Diele, with its checkered tablecloths and a menu of goulash and spätzle, surrounded by the books and the words of a writer who was both of Berlin and not from Berlin, a man who disliked the city intently and yet became one of its greatest chroniclers. It talks to me about the shop for believers, filled with statues and trinkets; a little piece of Rome in this godless city. And it speaks to me of the Wintergarten and its cabaret stage, and the many thousands of performances I’ve never seen.

Not all the memories of the Potsdamer Straße are mine, but some are, and they take me back to my earliest days in the city. A long night with friends who lived on a side street to this great thoroughfare, starting with cocktails in a dark bar of concrete and polished wood, and ending in an all-night drinking den with carpet on the walls and friendly drag queens, with one more beer to toast the rising sun. Another friend lived down the street, from whose apartment we could watch Christopher Street Day parades while eating a huge watermelon bought from the supermarket on the corner along with Fladenbrot and dips. And Potsdamer Straße reminds me of the night bus home to Steglitz, catching glimpses of 21st century versions of Sally Bowles through the window, visions wrapped in long coats and heavy scarves beneath the street lights. How I was too lonely and scared to press the button, to bring the bus to a halt and climb down onto the pavement. 

***

Anyone who moves to this city at any time is told that they came too late. They should have been here in the 1990s. Or the 1970s. Or the 1920s. But in those first few months, the Potsdamer Straße I spied through the night bus window offered a glimpse of the different versions of the city I arrived too late to experience. There was Franz Hessel, passing Christopher Isherwood on the street corner outside a red-lit bar. Across the road, a pale boy in the shadows who has come to the city to meet David Bowie. And my friends on the side street, newly arrived from the south, moving in to the apartment as the shadow of the Berlin Wall still lingered up the road, just a mile or so to the north. 

A decade later it was my turn. A train from Schönefeld with the city under snow. The television tower, lost in the mist. Darkness in the streets around Alexanderplatz, which made the three letters – OST – above the Volksbühne seem to shine all the brighter. The earliest memories of a place, seared the strongest.

On Potsdamer Straße I walk to see an old friend accompanied by these memories. Fragments and faces. Bodies and beer bottles. Up to now, my friend has haunted other places in the city. A basement bar in Mitte. An art school garden in Charlottenburg. A soft summer evening in Wedding. After today, he will join the cast that stalk Potsdamer Straße with me.

***

None of us experience a place in the same way. We all bring with us our own stories and knowledge, our own cast of characters, whether real or imagined. Even in unknown or unfamiliar places we rarely arrive empty handed, and what we see when we get there is shaped by what we know and what we don’t. A few weeks ago, in my friend’s kitchen, he talked about his work in the same way that I think about the Potsdamer Straße. He could show me something, he said, but he couldn’t tell me what to feel. Everyone brings their own luggage. Everyone brings their own ghosts. 

***

On Potsdamer Straße, where Joseph Roth loiters, making space on the pavement for pious shoppers, and the street looks the same now as it did when I viewed it through a rain- and exhaust-smudged window (even though I know that it can’t), I turn into a courtyard to meet my old friend. People used to make newspapers here. Journalists, editors, printworkers. You can see it in the buildings, read it in the brick and glass and concrete. A form for a purpose, now used for something else, like so many places in this city. I think of all those words, written and printed and sent out from the gates. News today. Chip paper tomorrow. Add this place to the memories;  my own and of others. Add it to what I hear when Potsdamer Straße talks to me. And add it to what I will be holding within as I face my old friend’s creations. 

***

Paul Scraton is the editor in chief of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place and the author of two books published by Influx Press: Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic coast (2017) and Built on Sand (2019), a novel set in Berlin and Brandenburg. 


The Graffiti Chapel

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By David Lewis:

Some days we could walk across the city without touching the ground.  In the 1960s, when the city was welcoming the car into her widened streets with open arms, it was decided to extend safe sky-streets over the busy roads.  We called them the walkways. Bridges sprang over the traffic and the walkways connected them. By the time I knew them twenty years later they were filthy and vandalised but still connected parts of the city centre, like a half-cleared railway network of odd branches and unused lines. 

So the city decided that the walkways had been a mistake, and decommissioned them.  Gently they were cleaned from the city’s streets and perhaps her memory as well. The scars are still there, brick or concrete rectangles on the first floor of buildings where a walkway used to be, the stumps of bridge supports, another scar-rectangle matching on the other side of the road. 

When I knew they were going to demolish them, I walked as many walkways as I could.  They leaped across Old Hall Street, Roe Street, the Goree, others I cannot remember, so familiar were they and so completely have they been erased from the cityscape.  The walkways squeezed between buildings to create sky-streets of broken lights and urine. And graffiti. Inevitably the taggers and street artists saw the walkways as a golden opportunity to enrich the city and the urban experience.  

Two walkways met at a small open pavilion, a room open on three sides to the elements, the roof supported on slender concrete pillars.  Every inch of the walls and ceiling and floors was spray-painted, and over-painted, and painted again. Names and titles and challenges and dates chased each other over the concrete in a swirl of reds and silvers, blacks and yellows, blues and a rich strain of orange. Standing there, I lost all sense of proportion or depth, as if in a chapel by Giotto, a street trompe-l’oeil, vertiginous and disorienting.  It smelled of cigarette smoke and urine rather than frankincense, and unlike Giotto the artists had no need to respect perspective, morality or architecture, but they were liberated by their concrete canvas: the words and colours flowed freely over floor and wall, onto windowsill and pillar, swirling to head height and beyond, so that the floor seemed to descend and the ceiling to rise into the sky.  It was bawdy, exciting, psychedelic, exhausting.  

And it was doomed.  The cigarette smoke was the problem.  The graffiti chapel stood like a debauched and drunken priest alongside the new solemn fortress of the Crown Courts on Derby Square, a reminder of the anarchic city, the lawless city, its underbelly, everything the towers of the Courts stood against. The Courts were built in a deliberate biscuit-concrete echo of the Castle that once stood there, and Crown Courts and graffiti chapel stood like a debased version of what used to be, Castle and Church. 

The graffiti chapel and the walkway was where the visitors to the Crown Courts, the families and friends of accused or plaintiff, stood for an anxious cigarette, and the smaller messages were prayers of hope, votive offerings to an indifferent Law; ‘Thomas is Innocent!’ ‘Luke S Got Five Years Should Have Been Ten’, ‘Where’s the Justice for Our Mary’.  Painting the walls would only attract the graffiti boys again, and it was decided to demolish. So one autumn day, tracing surviving walkways or their routes on the ground, I turned a corner to find the graffiti chapel gone. In my days writing about the city’s churches, I turned other corners to find other chapels demolished, but none saddened me as much. 

***

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


PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: James Miller for Nedim Türfent

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PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: Over the past few weeks we have been handing over the Elsewhere blog to a series of literary tributes from UK-based writers in solidarity with writers at risk around the World who are supported by English PEN. As they were added, all the tributes were collected together here. Today, for the final tribute, it is the turn of James Miller for Nedim Türfent:

Journalist Nedim Türfent published a video in which a Special Operations officer in Yüksekova, a province on the southeastern Turkish border with Syria, can be seen abusing Kurdish civilians lying on the floor, yelling racist remarks at them. He was detained on May 12, 2016 and sentenced to eight years and nine months in prison on Dec. 15, 2017 on charges of “membership in a terrorist organization.” The poem below incorporates some of Nedim’s final tweets (translated from Kurdish) before he was detained. 

985 Days

January 24th, 2019
Nedim Türfent has now been in prison 985 days.

985 days is 140 weeks is 23640 hours.
985 days for opening a window to the truth,
For showing the reality of a situation,
For showing what is.

A ‘curfew’ was declared in the villages of Mezra, Geman and Mergan, in Zawite, Koprulu and Minyanis.

985 days 

985 days ago, my daughter was not even a heartbeat on a scan, 
Not even a blurred shape in the womb.
A life waiting to be conceived, waiting to be brought into the world.

985 days. 

In the last 2 days: 24 Kurds, including journalists and politicians, were arrested in Van, Antep, Isparta, Silopi, Khorasan, Amed and Idil. The last 1 month, how many?

Now, my daughter is eighteen months is 547 days old.
Eighteen months abundant with life, eyes open, smiling, inhabiting the world.
Eighteen months is 547 days of sleeping and not sleeping.

In Gever a "security" outpost under construction today. Concrete blocks brought in by trucks all day long.

Eighteen months. Time to go from milk to food,
New teeth happily munching muffins, sausages, pasta, cheese
A face smeared with yogurt and berries.
Eighteen months enough time to learn to say “more” and “no” and jiggle in her high chair.
And then throw the food on the floor.

The attack on the police station in Giresun killed police officer, Senior Sergeant Zafer Caliskan.

Eighteen months is 547 days.
Enough time for a wriggle to grow into a sit up and a turn over.
547 days is 13,128 hours.
Enough time for a turn over to become a crawl, head forward, bottom up, hands down moving with curious determined purpose.
Enough time for a crawl to become a stand, on wobbling, chubby little legs.
Arms outstretched, a giddy smile.
Amazed at herself.
13,128 hours is enough time for a stand to become a totter, a precarious forward wobble.
Enough time for a totter to become a walk.
Almost enough time for a run.
More than enough time for a climb, a scramble and a slide.

Air-assisted military operation continues in Mount Goman. Heavy bombing from artillery and howitzer.

Eighteen months is 547 days is 13,128 hours enough time to learn to say
Hello, goodbye, Moma, Dadda, moon, star, car and nose.
Enough time to turn the pages of a book, to point and say
“Roar” at the lion, “Tiger” at the tiger.
Enough time for a little finger to point at the duck and say
“Quack quack.”

5th Day of Operation: Special troops and ammunition were downloaded to the areas of Mêrgesaw, Gorbadina and Çiyayê pane.

Eighteen months is 547 days is 13,128 hours is enough time to see autumn, winter, spring, summer, autumn and winter again.

Spring has come to my mountains, colourful flowers opened. The Frontier Battalion is a dagger in the heart of nature!

Seventeen months is 547 days is 13,128 hours is a very long time to see nothing, 
Shut from the light, cut from your freedom
Separated from your family, deprived of your children
Simply for seeing the truth, for showing others the truth.

So far Nedim Türfent has been in prison 985 days, which is 140 weeks which is 23,640 hours.

***

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About Nedim Türfent: Nedim is a Turkish news editor, reporter and poet who, after covering Turkish military operations in the southeast of the country, faced trumped-up terrorism charges following an unfair trial, during which scores of witnesses said they had been tortured into testifying against him, and is now serving an eight-year-and-nine-months prison sentence in harrowing conditions. He started composing poetry while detained.

About James Miller: James is the author of the novels Lost Boys (Little, Brown 2008), Sunshine State (Little, Brown 2010) and UnAmerican Activities (Dodo Ink 2017) as well as numerous short stories. He is senior lecturer in Creative Writing and English Literature at Kingston University. 

PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: Ellen Wiles for Dina Meza

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PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: Over the next two weeks we are handing over the Elsewhere blog to a series of literary tributes from UK-based writers in solidarity with writers at risk around the World who are supported by English PEN. As they are added, all the tributes will be collected together here. Today is the turn of Ellen Wiles for Dina Meza:

I was first invited to pay tribute to Meza as part of the English PEN Modern Literature Festival in January 2019. I took inspiration from a speech she gave on International Women's Day, in which she tells the story of a colleague of hers, Dunia Montoya: another Honduran woman journalist who was brutally beaten by police when she covered a protest against state corruption. Meza quotes Montoya as describing justice in the country as being as distant as ‘the stars in the sky’. Before performing my poem, I began by sounding three notes from a pair of treasured, hand-made bronze chimes were given to me by an experimental visual and performance artist in Myanmar, Aung Myint, who also bravely protested against a repressive military regime for many years, in different ways, and was also both censored and threatened. You can watch my performance of the poem here.

Starlight on Honduras

When justice is as distant as the stars in the sky
when fake-fake news fawns over military men
spinning truths as tasteless as cardboard tamales
when free speech and other rights are rendered illusory
when national security means violence with impunity 
and power is swiftly won with the help of a gun

people who speak up are warned to know their place.
and if a woman won’t listen, a rape threat might make her
or targeting another useful weak spot: her children
miming slitting their tarnished little throats should suffice.
the few who still won’t stop must expect to be surveilled 
and learn to see fear as an indulgence to be quelled.

When the body feels as fragile as a porcelain figurine
when the spirit is a petal floating slowly to the earth
when it’s hard to keep a grasp on hope’s fraying rope
when, all around, hard nationalism gains global ground
when oppression starts to threaten even those lucky citizens
who’re used to living cosily in liberal democracies

voice is still the best and only weapon to resist
formations of words can still move minds and heal rifts
so courageous women journalists defiantly persist
believing in the need to keep believing in each other
speaking out against abuse despite existential risks
deserving tributes far more starry than a small poem like this
packed with bleeding liberal metaphors, liberally mixed.

...

I spent the next few months reflecting on Meza’s life, often imagining what she was doing while I was ambling on through my own juxtaposed writer-mother’s life with my two children. I dwelt increasingly on what it would feel like to be forced to put your children’s physical safety at risk every single day through your writing, and particularly to receive sexual threats directed at your daughter – but I found this almost too excruciating to contemplate. When I was invited to perform a second time in tribute to Meza, at the Greenwich Book Festival, 2019, I decided to write a new piece – a piece of prose, this time – born out of those reflections. You can watch my performance of it here.

Wolf Mother 

My daughter surprised all of us by growing a loose, golden Afro as soft as a cloud.
What with her blue eyes, it causes a lot of people to assume that she and her dad aren’t related, 
and it’s a paradise for headlice, but it’s worth all the hours of painstaking combing.
She says t instead of ch
and f instead of th.
She pecks at dry cereal flakes like a little sparrow
eats only the white of egg
licks the honey off her toast
and makes every pancake into a letescope.
She’s exceptionally tall for her age – only just three but the height of a five-year-old –
and is implausibly Bambi-legged.
She could be a supermodel, I’m often told in knowing tones
but I’ll do all I can to keep her future adolescent body safe from judging gazes.
When she doesn’t get her way she throws back her peachy cheeks
and lets her epiglottis vibrate like a fire bell, at a pitch no
human can endure for very long. 
And she knows it.
When she’s sleepy and calm she strokes my face and hair
like I’m a new kitten.
And when I lean down to kiss her goodnight she’ll 
get me in a headlock under her arm, clinging to my skull
like a rugby ball she never wants to touch down.
When she sings, her timbre is as exquisite as
a blackbird’s and she’s bang in tune. 
Her favourite toy is a scruffy and malevolent chicken, whose
gimlet eye she mimics when she wants
to bend my will.

Her older brother is the world’s most beautiful boy.
He doesn’t know it yet, but his coppery skin, sleek black curls
and rainbow smile radiate energy and light 
and promise to open doors to life’s best kept secrets.
He knows all the dwarf planets and names of distant stars, 
can list the rarest dinosaurs like they’re old friends, 
and is intimate with the inhabitants of the Mariana trench. 
Last time we played twenty questions on the way to school, 
I gave up. 
‘Shall I tell you?’, he asked. 
‘Tell me’, I conceded.
‘A benthocodon’, he said, triumphant but mildly disdainful of my ignorance. 
(That’s a deep water jellyfish shaped like a bell, in case you, too, didn’t know).
He can leap like a gazelle, swing easily from monkey bars
and devour stories like Augustus Gloop did chocolate cake – 
he can listen enraptured for hours, snuggling up against me, until 
my voice is hoarse, and he believes that he, like Matilda, 
will one day learn to move objects with his eyes. 
When he doesn’t meet his own expectations of himself, 
he can descend into a furious grump, 
but within five minutes he’ll be sparkling as if nothing had happened.
He’s translated the bleep language spoken by his toy robot,
his alter ego is a peregrine falcon that can dive at 60 miles per hour,
and at five years old he’s so worried about climate change and its effects on animal life
he’s decided to become a vegetarian, which both pleases me and breaks my heart.
He’s engaged to a girl in his class, and saves her grapes at lunchtime,
he can scrape out Rigadoon on his cello, and dances the coconut calypso 
like his limbs are made of slinkies instead of bones. I can 
just about still pick him up and throw him onto our bed to tickle him, 
but it takes all my strength.

I lost him once. 
He was two, and his sister was a baby. 
We were out in the park, on a balmy summer day, and I was changing her nappy – 
and when I looked up he’d gone. 
I scooped up the baby and circled the fenced-off toddler area, 
once, then twice, keeping studiously calm. 
But he was nowhere. 
The panic churned; my feet picked up speed.
I told every adult I passed, speaking too fast, but they understood 
from my face alone, and we all fanned out 
like a newly-oiled machine
searching, calling. 
I headed half-blind towards the road – 
he’d always been good about roads before, but what if… 
The baby, who was being jiggled and grasped too tight, 
started to cry, as time slowed and fractured around me. 
How could I continue living if…?

And then he emerged, from a bush that he’d been imagining as his 
den in the Jungle Book, where he lived with Mother Wolf. 
And right at that moment, 
I was Mother Wolf, 
from heckled neck to claw. 
I was pure animal.

When I became pregnant for the second time
I was happy – but all the same I couldn’t imagine having 
an inch more space in my heart to love a second small person 
with the newfound fierceness I felt for my son. 
But then, when she arrived, new caverns opened up within me, 
at least as big again, yet without diminishing the size of the caverns 
that had opened up for him. 
It’s like one of those impossible pictures of houses 
with infinitely intertwining stairs. 
It makes no rational sense.
It’s just one of the illogical miracles of motherhood.

The writer Dina Meza has three children, 
and I’m sure she loves the third one 
as voraciously as the first two. Since learning about her work, 
while I do the school and nursery drop-offs, 
reliant on the knowledge that my children will be safe and nurtured, 
and that, if they need me for anything, I can drop the writing I’m doing freely
and come running – I often think of her
waving her three children off to school, 
while being watched over by bodyguards, 
heading off to report unofficially on a disappearance
that echoes her own brother’s tragedy,
being followed by a car crawling along with no 
number plate, that she pretends not to notice,
wondering whether to answer a call on her tapped phone, 
hoping that, if the voice on the other end issues a threat
the threat will be to her, and not to her children.

As I collapse onto the sofa with a cup of tea 
after putting my children to bed, I think of her doing the same
after returning home – to a new home where armed men have not 
yet broken in – before summoning the energy to return to her
desk and write the words that will rile still further with their truth, 
that will ratchet up the risk to her children once again
for the longer-term benefit of all our children. 
As I open up a school newsletter asking parents to 
support a project to plant a set of trees in the playground 
she, I think, might, this moment, be opening a letter saying: 
Don’t think you can carry on treacherously 
undermining our national unity and security.
We know where your children go to school now
all three of them, and their routes back
to your new home that you told them were the safest ones. 

I put the newsletter aside and creep back into my children’s bedroom. ‘
My daughter has shifted herself around on the lower bunk 
so that she is lying horizontally, with one arm dangling 
off the edge, overseen by the malevolent chicken
whose eyes gleam at me as if in a proprietorial challenge.
I bare my fangs at it and growl.
As I turn her around gently, she sighs and resettles, and I 
stroke the soft billow of her hair and 
pull the duvet over her skinny arms. 
Up on the top bunk, my son has one arm flung around 
his furry wombat, a present when he was born from a 
friend down under, and his head is tilted towards the creature’s 
whiskers, his lips slightly parted as if he’d 
fallen asleep while telling it an anecdote. 
The smooth line of his forehead 
glows in the marmalade light of the city 
and the moon that seeps through the blinds. 

***

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About Dina Meza: Dina Meza is an astoundingly courageous Honduran journalist and human rights defender. Her work was initially motivated by her brother’s disappearance and torture by the state nearly thirty years ago. She is the founder and President of PEN Honduras, and founding editor of the online newspaper ‘Pasos de Animal Grande’ where she publishes information on human rights violations and corruption in Honduras – despite receiving constant death threats to herself and her three children, including sexual threats to her daughter. She needs protection around the clock. Nevertheless, she persists. She is the recipient of both the special Amnesty International UK prize for journalists at risk and the Oxfam Novib/PEN International Freedom of Expression prize. You can read a piece she wrote about freedom of expression in her country here

About Ellen Wiles: Ellen is a writer, ethnographer and curator. She is the author of The Invisible Crowd (Harper Collins, 2017), a novel, and Saffron Shadows and Salvaged Scripts: Literary Life in Myanmar Under Censorship and in Transition (Columbia University Press, 2015). She is the founder of Ark, an experimental live literature project, and has recently completed an ethnographic PhD on live literature and cultural value. She was formerly a human rights barrister and a musician.



PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: Steven J. Fowler for Oleg Sentsov

PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: Over the next two weeks we are handing over the Elsewhere blog to a series of literary tributes from UK-based writers in solidarity with writers at risk around the World who are supported by English PEN. As they are added, all the tributes will be collected together here. Today is the turn of Steven J. Fowler for Oleg Sentsov:

First performance, January 2019

My first performance was for Oleg Sentsov, the filmmaker currently imprisoned in a penal colony for 20 years on trumped up charges by Russia. What struck me about him, which I wanted to represent, was his unearthly stubbornness, and insistence, and heart, and courage, and resilience. He clearly has an iron mind and is utterly principled, beyond any possible expectation in fact. I read his letter at the end of the performance but wanted to use the somewhat pathetic metaphor of eating nailed fruit as a way to represent the intensity of his refusal, when in court in Russia, to offer any submission. 

Second performance, June 2019

For my second performance I once again nailed fruit and then ate it nailed, but this time with a black bag on my head while improvising some words about what Oleg Sentsov’s gesture of resistance, and life in general means to me, building on the six months between works I had to think about him. The principle that we might not be brave when called, and that even if, at first flush we may feel courage, it normally dissipates as reality sets in. This is an idea I have thought about my whole life. That it is easy to be what you hope to be when the weather is fair, but character is what happens when you realise days in you will be forgotten and your suffering, no matter how representative, symbolic or important, if yours alone. The man, Oleg Sentsov, is a giant. He has a giant soul. He embarrasses me into gratitude for my life, and that there seems no question on the horizon for my own principles like the one he has quite unbelievably answered.

***

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About Oleg Sentsov: Oleg is a Ukrainian writer and filmmaker who is currently serving a 20-year prison sentence in Siberia on trumped-up terrorism charges, after a grossly unfair trial by a Russian military court, marred by allegations of torture, and who has so far spent 145 days on hunger strike. He was awarded the prestigious European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought for his work.

About Steven J. Fowler: Steven is a writer and artist who works in poetry, fiction, theatre, film, photography, visual art, sound art and performance. He has published seven collections of poetry, three of artworks, four of collaborative poetry plus volumes of selected essays and selected collaborations and has been translated into 27 languages. Steven has been commissioned by Tate Modern, BBC Radio 3, Whitechapel Gallery, Tate Britain, the London Sinfonietta, Wellcome Collection and Liverpool Biennial and he is the founder and curator of The Enemies Project and Poem Brut as well as editor at 3am magazine and executive editor at The Versopolis Review. He is a lecturer in Creative Writing and English Literature at Kingston University, teaches at Tate Modern, Poetry School and Photographer's Gallery. He is the director of Writers' Centre Kingston and European Poetry Festival.

PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: Paul Ewen for Behrouz Boochani

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PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: Over the next two weeks we are handing over the Elsewhere blog to a series of literary tributes from UK-based writers in solidarity with writers at risk around the World who are supported by English PEN. As they are added, all the tributes will be collected together here. Today is the turn of Paul Ewen for Behrouz Boochani:

Behrooz Boochani is an Iranian-Kurdish journalist, writer, human rights defender, poet and film-maker, who has been illegally detained by the Australian government in the Manus Island Detention Centre for over six years, after being forced to flee Iran. In his book, No Friend But The Mountains, Behrouz returns often to his memory of the chestnut oak tree. In his Kurdish homeland, the people found asylum within chestnut oak tree forests, while a devastating war was being waged upon them. In the searing heat on Manus Island, there aren’t any chestnut oak trees, but Behrouz does write of mango trees, which surround the detention centre. This piece, written for Behrouz, is based on the chestnut oak tree and the hope of refuge, which it carries. 

Swap

It was just after four in the morning when I broke into Kew Gardens. It was my only option. The grounds were all fenced off, with high gates and uniformed security guards. Trees, it seems, are very precious things. 

Inside, using a map of the surrounds, I cautiously crept off the lighted paths, attempting to avoid the sound of kicked leaves underfoot. Near an outbuilding, I found my first object of interest: a mango tree. With my torchlight, I revealed more leaves, mango leaves, gathered on the ground beneath it. Working quickly, I began picking these up, every last one, including the sticks and the twigs. Collecting them in a thick sturdy bag, I silently set off in search of my second location. 

The English oak, also known as the common oak, is the most common tree species in the UK. But the chestnut oak is a much rarer thing. In Kew Gardens there is a particularly fine specimen, which was first introduced to Kew in 1843. Today it stands at over 36 metres, and has been crowned the ‘National Champion Chestnut Oak of the UK’. Its green leaves, unlike the longer, rounded edges of the mango leaf, are indented, almost perforated, in appearance. My torchlight soon picked out many of these, despatched onto a wide catchment of grass, from this giant of trees. Making a careful note of their arrangement, I began gathering them into a pile, which I placed just outside of the drop zone. In their place, I began loosely dropping mango leaves from the mango tree. When the bag was empty, I refilled it with the leaves of the chestnut oak, before retracing my steps, back to the mango tree. 

Attempting to closely replicate their natural, scattered arrangement from before, I began redistributing the chestnut oak tree leaves on the grass and roots beneath the branches of the mango tree. I took particular care and attention with this task, and after a few final leaves and twigs had been painstakingly shifted, upended and turned, I sat down, leaning back on the trunk. From here, surrounded by fallen chestnut oak leaves, now lit by the first rays of escaping sun, I imagined I was not beneath a mango tree, in a fenced-off area patrolled by security guards, but in a safe, welcoming place where one could feel free. 

***

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About Behrouz Boochani: An Iranian-Kurdish journalist, writer, human rights defender, poet and film-maker, Behrouz Boochani has been illegally detained by the Australian government on Manus Island for over six years, after being forced to flee Iran and undertake a life-threatening boat journey, along with other asylum seekers. Behrouz has written: “We are a bunch of ordinary humans locked up simply for seeking refuge..” His book, No Friend But The Mountains, details the extreme oppression and hardships in the Manus Island Detention Centre, as a result of the Australian government’s inhumane refugee policy..

About Paul Ewen: Paul is a New Zealand writer based in London. His work has appeared in the British Council’s New Writing anthology, the Guardian, TES and Five Dials. Paul’s first novel, Francis Plug: How To Be A Public Author, was described by the New Statesman as ‘a modern comic masterpiece’. The follow-up novel, Francis Plug: Writer in Residence, was shortlisted for the 2019 Bollinger Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction. British comedian Stewart Lee has called Francis Plug “the only writer that matters”.

PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: Sara Upstone for Dawit Isaak

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PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: Over the next two weeks we are handing over the Elsewhere blog to a series of literary tributes from UK-based writers in solidarity with writers at risk around the World who are supported by English PEN. As they are added, all the tributes will be collected together here. Today is the turn of Sara Upstone for Dawit Isaak:

Dawit Isaak was born in Eritrea in 1964. He was granted Swedish citizenship in 1992. In 2001, having returned to Eritrea, he was arrested and imprisoned without trial for supposed anti-government activity involving his work as a journalist for the country’s first independent newspaper, of which he was a part owner. There has been no sighting of Isaak since 2005. #FreeDawit

Empathy

From the Greek, Empátheia
From the Greek, en- páthos.
In feeling.
In.

I am trying to step in. Not much, you say. Not angry. Or representative. Not of any real use, perhaps. 

But still. 

Two years old. Wheezing sea-sick in isolation room, porthole window in antiseptic white door. Three. A stranger in my unconsoling father’s house. Eight. A bathroom door, rusted metal lazy in a lock just high enough to reach. 

Somewhere else, a twenty-three year old man has all the doors unlocked, an arrivant from a furnace to Sweden’s western coast chill. Sadness but with a heart-held, already-known, future. Marry. Raise children. Write words. Perhaps. Not here, but in that first, difficult love. 

It is a name with the poetry of a fantasy. Eritrea. 

Eighteen. The girl along the corridor is in love with university halls – they remind her, she tells me, of her boarding school. In the night, I forget where I am. Pack my belongings into the back of the car. Mollusc-spiralled on the backseat, shivering. Going home.

The young man, too, is home. In the place with the fantasy name he makes already-known futures real. Swims on the exhilaration of promises – independence, democracy, free-speech.

He is full of hope. He has called his first born daughter Betlehem. 

Twenty-two. Dissertation. Keywords: postcolonial, politics, space. Diversion in the project to Rubin Hurricane Carter, African American boxer falsely imprisoned for twenty years on charges of murder. Carter refuses to be freed from his cell; he wakes only when the other prisoners are asleep, exercises only at night. 

My style needs correction. My ideas are too political. They award me the thesis. 

The young man, too, is fulfilled. Perhaps. He has a little money. Buys pages of his own. Loves cheese. And coffee. He has a tendency to oversleep. 

They come for him on a Sunday, not in the newspaper offices but in his home.  

Twenty-six. I investigate escape ladders. Plan night-time routes along flat roofs. Debate the relative merits of ropes fashioned from sheets and mattresses thrown from windows. Decline invitations to travel by plane, decline anything where the aisle is unavailable. Accept employment where I can leave the room. Speak too fast, always, in case a door is about to close. 

In Eritrea two days pass quicker than the last 3000. The young man – he is still young –  smiles. Perhaps. He stretches and remembers how limbs move; visits the doctor and watches bruises transfigure purple to yellow. Kisses his children with plum-soft lips. Inhales just long enough for the heartbeat to return to normal before the handcuffs are re-secured. 

His wife tells the newspapers that this is a family matter. 

Thirty-two. My pregnant body is inside out; I am waiting nine months to be delivered. In the MRI scanner I forget not to open my eyes and for a second – an unalloyed heartbeat – am buried alive. 

For his fourth-seventh birthday, the man is given the gift of the rumour of his death. It is a premature arrival.

Perhaps.

Thirty-seven. My new lover sleeps like Gulliver. I crouch downstairs, in a small sliver of light, invocating camomile-conjured disappearing spells. I know the meaning of imprisonment. 

Hume broke his own rules when he said we can imagine a missing shade of blue. 

In Gothenburg, a replica cell is created. Visitors come. They sit with the absent man, respectfully. They are affected. 

With the surety of resurrection, it is impossible to experience death. 

Thirty-eight. I am with love. John gives us the house with the sheep for the music festival. We perform our separation from the world, wallow in isolation. Revel in the stripping of time. Bemoan lack of phone signal whilst surfing Facebook from the stairway. It is so good, someone declares, to get away from everything. 

The man is perhaps no longer young. He has been in his cell for more than 6000 days. 

Or, if you prefer, 518,400,000 seconds.

Or, if you prefer, the time it takes for a man’s children to reach adulthood.

What is your preference?

In the house surrounded by sheep the children bluster us to the first landing, to a small metal hook in the wooden floor. Incessant clamour demands we lift the lid – show us the priest’s hole, they squeal. We try to give them a lesson: mutter vaguely about papists, queens, and dying for one’s beliefs. They roll their eyes. Reach for the light switch. Clamber down the ladder, squeezing into the hole. My own daughter refuses, declines coaxing, peers silently over the edge. A den of detritus, midnight feasts littering the floor. The walls are covered in markings, initials carved, the audacity of marker pens. You can write here what you like. If John catches you then he will charge you more to remove the offending mark. Your parents will pay if you get caught. 

Concert day and the house is full. An old English man, white haired and pale faced, climbs the stairs. He sees the children curling into the floor, disappearing. He has never been to the house, he tells us, not before today. It is a fine building, and he wishes he had come earlier. But he has heard all about the priest’s hole, he says, and glances at my daughter. He wouldn’t go down there; you’re right, he says, to stay up here. Sometimes people do things you can’t even imagine, he says. There is a cruelty in people you don’t expect. His grandson came here once, some years past, with a group of friends. When he climbed into the hole, he tells us, the other boys shut the lid and stood on it. 

Weight on wood. 

What is the opposite of empathy? 

I try not to imagine it. I must imagine it. 

I try to imagine it.

At it is then I hear the call, quiet but clear, the door opening, the ladder climbed, the face – this face both old and young – looking outwards, emerging amidst a dancing mist of words. 

***

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About Dawit Isaak: Dawit is an Eritrean-Swedish journalist who was arrested as part of the September 2001 crackdown on Eritrea’s independent press, and arrested along with other print journalists who have since been held incommunicado. Although alleged to be ‘traitors’, not one of them has been charged or tried.

About Sara Upstone: Sara is Professor of Contemporary Literature and Head of School of Arts, Culture and Communication at Kingston University, London. She is the author of three monographs, most recently Rethinking Race and Identity in Contemporary British Fiction (Routledge, 2017), but her real pleasure is creative work that explores the intersection of literary forms and interdisciplinary practice. She is a regular contributor to the online journal Versopolis, and editor of Literary London Journal