PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: Sam Jordison for Narges Mohammadi

Sam 3.JPG

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 Sam Jordison for Narges Mohammadi:

In May 2016, the Revolutionary Court of Iran sentenced Narges Mohammadi to 16 years in jail. Charges included being a member of an organisation called “Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty” and “committing propaganda against the state.” 

One of the main focuses of that propaganda campaign was to stop the state killing juvenile offenders. 

Which is to say, children.

She’s now in the Evin prison alongside Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.  There she sometimes endures solitary confinement. She’s ill. She has a neurological disorder which causes muscular paralysis…  Yet, Evin prison officials denied her access to an neurologist for over a year. It’s partly for that reason that early this year Narges went on hunger strike. Since then, her health has deteriorated further. And it’s all too clear she hasn’t had the help she needs.

There’s a lot more to her story that I’d urge you to look into. And, of course, when you read that story, you’ll want desperately to help. And for Narges, there is something you can do. If you visit the website her friends and supporters have set up, the first thing you will see is a gallery of photos of mountains from around the world. The website explains:

“Foremost, we hope to raise awareness for Narges Mohammadi’s case, so that she is released and free to explore all these mountains and places, along with her family.”

Narges Mohammadi’s hobby used to be mountain climbing. When she was a university student, she was banned from mountaineering because of her political and human rights-related activities. She has been kept from the mountains ever since – but now people are sending her these pictures. I don’t know if she can see them in prison, but there’s still something  about this gesture. The photographs represent beauty and freedom: an alternative world were Narges is able to roam where she wants, enjoy nature on her own terms and feel the wind on her face. These pictures are also touching as individual acts of kindness. The people who have gone to the trouble of sending them are really sending solidarity and hope. 

I’ve tried to take inspiration from those people in what follows. I want to give my own small gift to Narges, which will be a walk on the mountain I love the most.

Actually, it’s more of a hill. It’s called Whitbarrow and it lies on the edge of the Lake District. Its summit is only 705 feet above sea-level – but that summit does glory in the name of Lord’s Seat. 

The rest of the hill, meanwhile, a long, exposed limestone escarpment laid down in the carboniferous period 350 million years ago, is a site of Special Scientific Interest, full of rare habitats, glacial erratics, and unusual rock formations. 

It’s an incredible place – but don’t take it from me. In his book the Outlying Fells of Lakeland, the great bard of fell-walkers Alfred Wainwright describes a walk up Whitbarrow as “the most beautiful in this book; beautiful it is every step of the way. ... All is fair to the eye on Whitbarrow.”

Which is true. But I love it especially, because it’s the hill behind my Mum’s house and I go up there all the time. 

From her front door, I just turn left onto a farm road, and I’m climbing. 

I go through a wooden gate at the top of the lane, and up though a steep field where lambs play in spring, and where, in winter, if it snows, the sledging is second to none.  At the end of the field there’s a style leading into a small wood, carpeted with bright bluebells in April and May, or where in summer, the air is thick and potent with wild garlic in and in late Autumn everything is dark and dripping. 

A short slippy trudge through this wood takes you to three old stone steps up the side of the wall. Then, a steep diagonal path up a bank and on to a stony, muddy track (which is inexplicably marked as a road on some maps, and so, every so often destroys a luckless lost saloon car… )

Leave this path quickly, cutting upwards to the right, through another, field, stonier now and scrubbier. There are thick bramble bushes that deliver sweet and tangy blackberries in early Autumn ---  and scratches for the unwary the rest of the time.

Another gate, a short climb and then it’s just sky and the long stretch of the escarpment. The path cuts through a small declivity, so you don’t get the full view yet, but no matter. The hill top itself is lovely enough, a big empty expanse of brown grass and heather and rocks, punctuated by just a few wind-battered trees and hawthorn and juniper bushes. It’s bleak and stony – but that has its own rugged charm. Not to mention its own unique interest. There’s a limestone pavement to the left of the path. It’s a geographer’s dream of clints and grykes and a special, ancient place… 

And on we go. Don’t get too distracted because the track is generally pretty muddy and there are loose rocks to watch for. Also, gigantic hairy red cows with long horns. They don’t do much more than stand around chewing the cud and looking scenic, but let’s not bump into them…

The path is flat now, riding the top of the outcrop.  After a gentle, but nonetheless elating couple of kilometres, we get to a high dry stone wall, built over a hundred years ago, by unknown hands, one carefully selected rock at a time. It stretches out over the top, as far as the eye can see… After that a small pine copse, before the path leads you past some miniature limestone escarpments that look for all the world like scale models of the hill you’re on… Then take a sharp right for Lord’s seat and the summit…

Which is where the magic really begins. 

Because my mum’s house is so well situated for the hill, and because I’m a father and early mornings no longer hold any fear for me, I’ve quite often made it up there just after sunrise. I ran up there this winter just past on a day so foggy that it felt as if it was actually getting darker as the dawn progressed – until, at least, I got to the last slope towards the cairn at Lord’s Seat. That took me above the mist, and I found myself looking out over splendours suddenly visible under the rising sun. Morecambe Bay and the Kent estuary and the Irish Sea to the south, another temporary sea of rolling fog in the valley below and to the West and beyond that the outlines of the Lake District mountains brightening into sharp focus: Cartmel Fell, the Old Man of Coniston, the Langdale Pikes… The names are evocative enough in themselves. But it’s the feeling you get. The strange elation of mountains… Of their long campaign against time. Of their hugeness in the face of humanity. Of their stillness and silence. These are places we can’t touch, we can’t spoil. I can’t properly verbalise that feeling. But it’s the same excitement that moved the romantic poets to write about sublime nature – and, I’m guessing, which motivated all those people to send in pictures for Narges.

In the early morning there’s an extra selfish pleasure too. If you get there early enough, Lord’s Seat can be yours. You can be king or queen of the mountain. Later on there will be more panting joggers,.  Walkers will enjoy well-earned cups of tea here. There won’t be so many people that it ruins things, and everyone I’ve ever met at the summit has been cheerful. But there’s something special about feeling alone amongst all that beauty…

I enjoy this solitude especially, because I know it will soon end. In fact, most of the time when I’m there, I’m not even really alone. My dog will be with me, tail wagging, making the most of things, sharing and adding to the joy of being there. I also know that when I get back I’ll get to see my family… My Mum’s house has a glass front door leading to the kitchen, and as I approach I generally see my daughter sitting at the table having breakfast --- and that’s better than all the other views in the world. 

And I wish that simple delight for Narges. I wish the day will come soon when she can enjoy the companionable loneliness and freedom of mountains.

As it is, we know what she has to endure. Harder still, she’s a mother of young children and she has been denied the most basic and deepest joy of knowing that the next hello is just a short walk away. 

If I may, I’d like to finish with an extract from a poem she wrote in September 2017 called Three Goodbyes:

Three goodbyes and a separation, like dying three times
When Ali and Kiana were just three and a half years old

I was arrested by the security guards when attacking my home
Kiana had just had an operation and it was only a couple of hours I had come home.
She had a temperature
When the security guards were searching the house, they allowed me to put the kids to bed.
I put Ali on my feet, and rocked him, and patted him
And softly sang him a lullaby
He slept
Kiana was restless. She had a temperature, and was scared.
She’d felt the fear
She’d clung her arms around my neck
And I, as if gradually sinking,
Was separated from them
When I was going down the stairs, leaving the house
Kiana was left crying in her father’s cuddle
She called me back three times
Three times I came back to kiss her…

When Ali and Kiana were eight and a half, I got them ready for school in the morning
And they left
The security guards attacked my home again
This time Ali and Kiana were not home
I picked up their photo from the bookshelf
And kissed them goodbye
And was led to the car
With men who had no mercy
And now in September 2017

I have not seen them in two and a half years
My writing might not be correctly worded

But it has the certainty of feeling – the pain of mothers throughout history
The mothers who take pride in their convictions from one side, and feel the pain of conviction being away their children taken away.

Narges Mohammadi
September 2017, Evin

It’s June 2019 now. It’s time she was allowed to see them. 

***

About Narges Mohammadi: Narges is an Iranian journalist and human rights defender, who is currently detained in prison – the same prison as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe – has frequently been kept in solitary confinement, and suffers from a chronic and painful health condition that is not being properly treated.

About Sam Jordison: Sam is an author, journalist and publisher. He is the co-director of the award-winning Galley Beggar Press. He writes about books for The Guardian. He has also written over ten non-fiction books including the best-selling Crap Towns series and a book about Brexit and Trump called Enemies Of The People.






First There is a Mountain, by Katie Paterson

First There is a Mountain 2019 Image © Katie Paterson / First There is a Mountain is supported by the National Lottery through Creative Scotland and Arts Council England

First There is a Mountain 2019 Image © Katie Paterson / First There is a Mountain is supported by the National Lottery through Creative Scotland and Arts Council England

By Sara Bellini:

Every Sunday for the duration of British Summer Time Katie Paterson is touring the British Isles with her new participatory artwork until the end of October. The title is First There is a Mountain and it engages the spectators in building sand mountains on their local beach, using buckets that are shaped after five real mountains: Mount Kilimanjaro (Africa), Mount Shasta (North America), Mount Fuji (Asia), Stromboli (Europe) and Uluru (Oceania). The forms themselves are made out of corn-starch-based bio-plastic, which will be composted at the end of the season. The mountains will be taken over by the rising tide, bringing the participants’ attention to geological processes and the UK disappearing coastlines. 

First There is a Mountain 2019 Image © Phil Rees, Swansea Bay with Glynn Vivian Art Gallery / First There is a Mountain is supported by the National Lottery through Creative Scotland and Arts Council England

First There is a Mountain 2019 Image © Phil Rees, Swansea Bay with Glynn Vivian Art Gallery / First There is a Mountain is supported by the National Lottery through Creative Scotland and Arts Council England

First There is a Mountain explores time and our relation to the environment and connects the local with the distant landscape of other continents through the minimal constituent of the sand grains. Katie Paterson’s artworks, from black holes to fossils,bring together scientific research and poetic sensitivity and make the viewers consider their space in the universe and the ancient and eternal beauty of the natural world we inhabit.

Check out the website to find out about the project locations and the pieces of writing commissioned for every single one of them:

Project website and next events
Katie Paterson's website


Seven Days Walking by Ludovico Einaudi

"I remember that in January 2018 I often went for long walks in the mountains, always following more or less the same trail…”

Ludovico Einaudi is a prolific Italian composer and pianist, and has published 20 albums since 1988. In his work he is often influenced by the quotidian and nature: his album 'Una Mattina' is the perfect soundtrack for a lazy spring morning with a book and a good coffee, and in 2016 he recorded a heartbreaking 'Elegy for the Arctic' for Greenpeace. 

His latest project is 'Seven Days Walking', a series of seven albums that will be published in the next seven months; all focusing on a different day of the same walk in the Alps, and how the days change while walking, slowly but discernible. 

"The idea first came to me as I was listening to the recordings of the first sessions: each version seemed to me to have its own personality, with subtleties so distinct from one another that I was unable to choose which I preferred. I associated everything with walking, with the experience of following the same routes over and over, discovering new details each time. And so in the end I decided to thread them all together in a sort of musical labyrinth, a little like stepping inside the twists and turns of the creative process, to understand how a musical idea can develop in multiple directions, and changing once again at the moment in which it is heard."

You can listen to the album through a variety of different services here.

In the village there is a river

IMAGE: Martin A. Smith

IMAGE: Martin A. Smith

By Martin A. Smith:

In the village there is a river.

Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that along the edge of the river there is a village.

It is not a big river, or a grand river. It is a small river, alive with trout, which slowly, gently makes its way down from the hills and the mountains, skirts the four ruined castles that give this place its name and passes through to the world beyond.

As it approaches the village it first passes a couple of houses, both with chickens running around the garden, then a ruined factory full of broken windows and rusting machinery. This was a textile producing area and every town or village on a river had a mill. When the industry became too expensive the mills and factories were shut down and left to decay. Now all towns and villages with a river have a ruined factory.

A part of the factory in this village though has been turned into a visitor centre for the castles, another part into a restaurant that has a Michelin star, luxury out of decay.

The river continues past the restaurant, the town hall, the bakery (open every day except Tuesdays) and the post office (open Tuesday afternoons and usually runs out of stamps)

The post office used to be a night club and, rumour has it, a brothel.

The river runs past the car park and away.

It is a large car park for a small village. It is used by the tourists visiting the ruined chateaux on the top of the hill and is the site of the old station.

A village this size wouldn’t normally justify a station, let alone a nightclub, or indeed a brothel. But they were not for the village; they were for the goldmine further up the mountain.

But the mine didn’t last long, the station closed, the nightclub became a post office and the village returned to being a small quiet village with a large car park for the tourists.

Along the river’s edge running adjacent to the car park there are large sloping walls. Flood defences built with granite and concrete and cement. The gentle river seems trapped at this point, encased between the mountain on one side and these defences on the other. They seem incongruous, ugly, unnecessary.

I do not know if they were they built to protect and support the railway line, or built later as part of the car park. But I know that they are unforgiving and I wondered why they were built so.

Then it rained and we watched as the water rise.

And suddenly the walls looked small and insufficient. People ran to remove their cars and protect their homes from the onslaught.

It was only for two or three days but the rain was relentless, obliterating the view across the valley, shrinking the world to a few feet in front of the window.

Swept down from the mountains by the crying winds the rain and the river it fed brought whole trees past our doors, broke the banks upstream and some villages were evacuated.

But the walls were enough. The river was contained and the rain eventually stopped.

The water started to subside and the village could relax, this battle with the elements was over. The locals met and discussed the water, how many leaks their homes had, the after effects of the flooding, all thankful their homes remained intact. Because for a time it was not certain.

In the village there is a river, and there is still a river and there is still a village and the walls that seemed incongruous, ugly, unnecessary kept us safe.

Martin A. Smith is an artist and composer whose work is concerned with the emotional response to the nature of place, memory and environment.

This piece is part of a gently ongoing project to discover the story of a small village in France.

From the hills above Frigiliana, Andalusia

IMAGE: Marcel Krueger

IMAGE: Marcel Krueger

By Marcel Krueger:

I guess it was worth it, schlepping my overweight, 39-year old body up the hill. I had set out early in the morning and walked through the valley of the Higueron river, with the white houses of Frigiliana disappearing to my left and the Chillar ridge rising up to my right. Then I huffed and puffed up the 400-meter hill, and now sit on a stone on top of the ridge, with the brown and green flanks of the Sierra de Enmedio rising into the blue sky, early bees are busy around me in the morning sunshine, and across the Mediterranean I can see Africa through the haze. But as this is the Anthropocene, there is also the surf of the nearby coastal motorway soundtracking it all.

Before I make my way down the hill and to breakfast again, I wonder what a Castilian foot soldier might have thought, when stomping through the same hills hunting for Moriscos, descendants of Muslims under Castilian rule who were in rebellion in the 16th century. Probably the same thing foot soldiers have thought from the Crusades to Auschwitz: 'The man paid me for it, so best get over with it'. 

Stoned: Castlerigg, Cumbria

Image: Caroline Millar

Image: Caroline Millar

By Caroline Millar:

Between an ancient, yellowed road atlas, an OS Landranger and a limited phone signal, I crept slowly along peering out for a trustworthy brown sign to tell me I was somewhere legitimate. I needn’t have worried. About twenty cars were parked up near the entrance. So much for Wordsworthian solitude.

Along the verge were signs of semi-permanent habitation. Gazebos strung out from the backs of vans created temporary shelter and marked out territory. Plastic picnic tables, cans of Tyskie lager, dogends and a single shoe told of long nights.

Looking back I don’t know what I expected to feel, but it wasn’t shame.

I almost overlooked the stones at first, my attention drawn instead to the people who’d set up camp inside. Within the stone circle sat another circle of hippies; crusties as we’d once called them, the dogs-on-string and lentil brigade, what my parents would call layabouts. A group of men their hair in dreads sat draped in duvets drinking early morning cider. Women with wilting flowers in their hair spread nutella on toast for unwashed toddlers. In the middle of the stones a white pile of ash from a dead camp-fire, empty packets of instant noodles and a didgeridoo.

I’d last been to Castlerigg about twenty years ago. As a student at Newcastle the Lakes had been an easy bus ride over the Pennines. It felt like I was there every summer, but in truth I think it wasn’t more than twice. In memory, my boyfriend and I turned up at the campsite late in the evening to be met by a red cheeked farmer crunching into an apple the same colour as his cheeks. He devoured our money with the same gusto as his apple and pointed to a wet field. For some reason his face has stuck in my head though it might be mixed up with the farmer from Withnail and I, the one with his foot wrapped in a plastic bag and a randy bull.  But re-watching Withnail was such a constant of my student days that fact and fiction are hard to separate.

That night we’d walked from the campsite across dark hummocky fields to a dream-like wood panelled bar. Like characters in a John Carpenter film we holed up inside, nursing our cheap bitter, dreading the call for last orders that signalled a long night in the cheap barely two person tent. When we walked down to the stone circle later with a take out bottle of wine, it was totally empty. I lay on my back, my bare feet placed on the stones wondering where all the stars had suddenly come from.

It was probably the Romantics who ruined places like Castlerigg by suggesting that by communing with old rocks we could find a way back to our primitive selves. Now we strain towards empathy at every heritage site, as if summoning the spirit of past is the only authentic response.  As I walked round the stone circle this time, I willed myself to feel something. I studied the alignment of the stones with the surrounding mountains trying to see how the entrance lined up with the Skiddaw and Blencathra. I ran my hands over the rough lichen-covered surface and even tried to hug one.

Disappointed, I headed back to the car, stopping on the way out to read the ubiquitous interpretation panels. They pictured illustrations of Bronze Age people looking a lot like the couple from The Joy of Sex. Long hair, beards, flowers in their hair. They were eating, drinking, watching the stars, having sex, playing instruments, sitting round the fire, pondering their future. Just like the hippies now.  It was me that was out of time and place here. What I’d felt in the stone circle was shame. The middle-aged hippies at Castlerigg were the real deal. Whilst I sought a relationship with the stones safe in the knowledge my hire car was parked near by and B&B already booked, they slept next to them, as I once had, before I grew up.

Caroline Millar is project manager for Discovering Britain - a series of interpretive walks run by the Royal Geographical Society. She also writes creative non-fiction and short stories inspired by the Kent Coast where she lives. Check out her blog – lights of sheppey

Caroline’s essay from Faversham Creek appeared in Elsewhere No.03, available from our online shop.