April Book of the Month: The Border by Diarmaid Ferriter

BorderCover.jpg

The Border - The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics
by Diarmaid Ferriter
Published by
Profile Books

Review: Marcel Krueger

It's quiet as I cross the border. The Enterprise emerges from the granite flanks the Gap of the North, for a moment there is the small grey hulk of 17th-century Moyry Castle visible to my left, and then the train chugs into the fields and hedgerows inside the Ring of Gullion. I've slipped into the North. While there is no visible sign of it, there is always a moment however that indicates the division between the Republic and the United Kingdom: when the phone networks change and the onboard wifi skips for a moment. A few phones across the almost empty carriage of the afternoon train start beeping, but that’s the only indication of a chance in jurisdiction. I could pay my tea in Pound or Euros all along the way anyway.

As I write this, the ship of fools that the House of Commons in Westminster has become is with every day producing new proof that as a parliament it is no longer functional and increasingly declaring its own bankruptcy over the issue of Brexit, and as Professor Tanja Bueltmann put it on Twitter: 'As a historian I am fascinated by watching a democracy dismantle itself.

As an EU citizen I am worried about what is happening to my home. As an observer I am facepalming basically every minute now. Never forget: everything that is happening is a *choice*, not a requirement.' And one of the things that is, unsurprisingly, seemingly confusing the British parliament is the border on the island of Ireland, the one I cross so often, quietly, on the train. If they would have time in between voting down any constructive motions for any progress, I would make historian Diarmaid Ferriter's latest book mandatory reading for every single Westminster MP. It's a small book, just 184 pages, but it concisely and understandably lines out the history of the Irish border from its creation in the 1920 Government of Ireland Act to the present day with (or without) its Backstop.

In 7 short chapters, Ferriter charts the negotiations between the Irish revolutionary government and the British Crown that lead to the Anglo-Irish treaty (and subsequent civil war in the south) and the creation of the border; and the often bizarre details of its inception, for example that the newly created border in Silesia between Weimar Germany and the new Polish Republic served as one of the blueprints for the Irish one. From then on he (literally) follows the border and its political implication for the leaders in Dublin, Belfast and London over the next decades, into the conflict in the North and how the subsequent opening of the border as part of the Good Friday Agreement helped overcome division and sectarian hatred and slaughter.

But this book is not purely historical or political non-fiction. Ferriter also weaves in voices from all areas of society and what the border meant and means for them, and how much the two countries on this island are interconnected: there's the Irish Football Association/Football Association of Ireland and Gaelic Athletic Association history of a divided and yet united Ireland (in sports at least) and the perspective of writers and poets; like Eugene McCabe (who's farm driveway crossed from Monaghan into Fermanagh) describing the borderlands as a '"dim, hidden country, crooked scrub ditches of whin and thorns stunted in sour putty land; bare, spade-ribbed fields... housing a stony-faced people living from rangy cattle and welfare handouts... To them a hundred years was yesterday, two hundred the day before."' And then, a few decades on, there's also the man who owns a bridge across the border and decides to plant his chip van smack-bang in the middle, avoiding taxes North and South. As Ferriter puts it, when referring to the shared commemoration of the Irishmen who fought in World War I: 'Such attention to inclusive commemoration, alongside the peace process and the sense of an "invisible" or "soft" Irish border, greatly improved relations between North and South; ultimately, up to 30,000 were travelling over the border each day, and that was convenient and valuable for both jurisdictions.'

What's most striking in this book is the crystal-clear analysis of past and contemporary blunders especially in London. The last few pages addressing the implications of Brexit on the Irish border are interspersed with recent quotes by English politicians who seem to have unlearned everything that should have been the lesson of the almost 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland followed by twenty years of peace. It hurts to read these bon mots of buffoonery collected in one place, and Ferriter's analysis sadly only increased the clinching of my guts and the fear of what mini-Trump Boris Johnson or the living cartoon Jacob Rees-Mogg might do if given free reign over politics that have a direct and immediate impact on the communities on this craggy island.

But there was, it seemed, a return to the politics and and ignorance of the past over the course of next two years as a succession of clownish Tories revealed the depth of their ignorance and contempt when it came to Ireland, none more so than Boris Johnson, foreign secretary from July 2016 to July 2018, who embarrassingly suggested the invisible boundary between the London boroughs of Camden and Westminster as a possible model for a post-Brexit border.

Ferriter has no solution for the dilemma of Brexit, but ends his book with a quote by Benedict Kiely, 'the most that can be hoped  for is that all Irishmen will some day learn to view the past without passion, ...'

The next time the House of Commons suspends its sitting amidst a crisis that has implications for millions of people because of a leaking roof or sewage leak, every single MP should a) receive a slap with this book (as I said, its relatively small) and then read it. The border with its past tragedies and current hopes must stay open.     

***

Wherever possible we recommend that readers of Elsewhere buy their books from a bricks and mortar bookshop or direct from the publisher.

Marcel Krueger is the Books Editor of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place. His writing has been published in numerous places both online and in print, and he is the author of Babushka’s Journey: The Dark Road to Stalin’s Wartime Camps (I.B. Taurus, 2017) and the upcoming Iceland: A Literary Guide for Travellers (I.B. Taurus, 2019). You’ll find him on twitter here.


The Library - Babylons on the Black Sea

Fleet of whalers lying up in Odessa port:    RIA Novosti archive   , image #171693 / Vsevolod Tarasevich /    CC-BY-SA 3.0

Fleet of whalers lying up in Odessa port: RIA Novosti archive, image #171693 / Vsevolod Tarasevich / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Odessa Stories, by Isaac Babel (Pushkin Press, 2018)
Black Sea – Through Darkness and Light. Dispatches and Recipes, by Caroline Eden (Quadrille, 2018)

Read by Marcel Krueger:

In the foyer of a hotel in Romania’s capital Bucharest a few years back, I struck up conversation with a group of English travellers. We talked about our travel plans, and when they heard that I was going to the Black Sea coast they told me to ‘watch out for the fireworks across the water’. The year was 2014, and the conflict in the Ukraine had just exploded into full military confrontation. I was saddened by that remark, as it made me realise that potentially a trip to Odessa was out of the question for the foreseeable future.

Odessa. Does that name not have a lovely ring to it? It speaks of the south, of spices and rum delivered via steamer, of gefilte fish and spices, of dark harbour taverns filled with sailors and farmers speaking a lovely mishmash of Russian, English, French, Greek, Turkish. These are all stereotypes of course, acquired over many years of never properly researching the city, only ever imagining what it must be like. To this day, Odessa and the sound of its name to me remains one of the last untainted travel ideals from my youth.

I was therefore delighted to discover that the Pushkin Press was re-issuing the stories of one of the city’s most famous sons, Isaac Emmanuilovich Babel. Babel ( 1894 — 1940) was a Jewish-Russian writer, journalist, playwright and revolutionary and is best known as the author of Red Cavalry, his fictionalised account of his time with the 1st Cavalry Army of the Red Army during the Polish-Soviet war of 1920, published in 1926 . Babel was born in Odessa, and the melting pot on the Black Sea had a lasting influence on his art: his Odessa Tales collection of short stories was first published in Russian in 1926. The stories shine a spotlight on Odessa roughly between 1900 and 1920, on its criminal underbelly and the life of the large Jewish community in the city. The tales gathered in Odessa Stories (a re-edition of Pushkin Press’ 2016 edition) contain the original stories in two sections entitled Gangsters and other “Old Odessans” and Childhood and Youth and also 2 more in a section entitled Loose Leaves that were not part of the original collection. Babel’s juicy prose has been newly and delightfully translated by Boris Dralyuk.   

The collection is Babel’s unflinching but tender look back at his hometown, stories about gangsters, merchants, pogroms and the antics of foreign sailors. The city however always takes centre stage:

In summertime, its beaches glisten with the bronze muscled figures of young men who live for sports, the powerful bodies of fishermen who aren’t much for sports, the meaty, potbellied and jolly trunks of “merchants”, alongside pimply and scrawny dreamers, inventors and brokers. While some distance from the wide sea, smoke rises from factories and Karl Marx does his usual work.

Odessa has a terribly poor; crowded and long-suffering Jewish ghetto, a terribly smug bourgeoisie and a terribly reactionary City Council.

Odessa has sweet and wearying evening in springtime, the spicy aroma of acacia trees, and a moon overflowing with even, irresistible light above a dark sea. 

Reading Babel’s tales today does of course nothing to dispel my ideal of Odessa, and while I will forever wonder what more stories the NKVD bullet that killed Isaac Babel on 27 January 1940 robbed us of, I am thankful that he created this wonderful snapshot of his home.

A fine complement to Babel’s fabulous tales is Caroline Eden’s Black Sea, linking the Odessa and the Black Sea of Isaac’s time to ours.  This travel book follows Eden’s journey from Odessa via Romania, Bulgaria and Istanbul along the Turkish Black Sea coast all the way to Trabzon in eastern Turkey. Her dispatches are interspersed with traditional or contemporary recipes from each of the regions she visits, or literary recipes based on some of the characters she encounters. This a beautiful book. From the lovely shimmering wave cover designed by Dave Brown over the exquisite images of both food and place to Eden’s flawless prose, it was a delight opening it and delving in.

Here Caroline Eden talks about Strandja, the mountainous border region between Bulgaria and Turkey:

Often, the edges of countries are rooted and fixed – a border crossing, a fence, a sea – here, demarcation is unfathomable. All we had were rustling oak woods as far as the eye could see, shaken by land winds and sea gales, all washed with a slightly Turkish climate and a southern, eastern air. It was a beautiful but befuddling landscape, a ‘terra incognita’ in our over-mapped world.

But sadly, the more I read the more I discovered that this book tries to be too many things at the same time, which diminished my enjoyment a good bit. The ‘dispatches’ are wonderful and induce both wanderlust and longing for all the places on the Black Sea that I visited before, but I feel that this is a book that should be stuffed into hand luggage and be read, dog-eared, on a bus trudging from Odessa to Bucharest. But due to format and heavy weight this is out of the question. For a coffee table book there are too few images, and for a book of recipes not enough of those. For me the recipes more interrupted the reading flow between dispatches than enhance it. Ideally, this is a great book for an armchair or kitchen stool traveller; but it sometimes stumbles over its own fragmentation.

That being said, the two books make an ideal pair for a Luftmensch like me: again fuelling my imagination of the Babylons on the Black Sea, their salt air and fried anchovies and kompot glasses. Maybe one day I’ll visit.

Wherever possible, we encourage readers of Elsewhere to purchase books directly from the publisher or via your nearest independent bookshop.

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

Macdonald.jpg

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 Library: Travellers in the Third Reich - The Rise of Fascism through the Eyes of Everyday People, by Julia Boyd

ThirdReichTravellers.jpg

Read by Marcel Krueger:

I strayed by mistake into a room full of S.S. officers, Gruppen- and Sturmbannführers, black from their lightning-flash-collars to the forest of tall boots underneath the table. The window embrasure was piled high with their skull-and-crossbones caps.
- Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts

In 1934, 18-year old Patrick Leigh Fermor walked on foot from Holland to Constantinople, which also meant that he had to cross Nazi Germany. But of contemporary political events he records little in his classic work of travel writing, 'A Time of Gifts'. Instead, the youngster is most fascinated by the palpable history in the Gothic old towns of Germany, the still-feudal society structures outside of towns, and the odd tipple. Besides a pub chat about Herr Hitler now and then, no one seems to be interested in engaging the youngster in political talk or even convince him to join their side.

Two years later, in April 1936, a group of English students between 12 and 14 years of age along with their teacher hiked up Schauinsland, a mountain in the Black Forest, a challenging hike even when undertaken in favourable conditions. Just short of the summit, the group - inadequately equipped and clothed - was engulfed in a blizzard, and severely lost. Hours later, some of the boys made it to a nearby village, from where a search party set off to rescue the scattered group from storm and darkness. By that time, four of the group of 27 were already frozen to death or had died from exhaustion. This tragic event became locally known as the Engländerunglück, literally ‘The Englishmen’s calamity’.

The Nazi propaganda machine now went into overdrive. The dead were laid out with all possible honours, the surviving members of the group pampered and feted by the local Hitler Youth, and all reports about the rescue effort suddenly credited the Hitler Youth itself with helping in the rescue. In 1938, in memory of this event, local authorities even erected a memorial for the deceased English students, with the inscription “The youth of Adolf Hitler honours the memory of these English sporting comrades with this memorial.”

These two events, the travails of an unperturbed vagabond and the tail of doomed yet innocent youngsters exploited by Nazi propaganda, are perfect examples of how visitors from the anglophone experienced holidays in Germany between 1933 and 1939. Few specifically came to see how the new Nazi state remodelled society, many came for steins full of beer, castles, deep forests and cheap accommodation. In 'Travellers in the Third Reich', Julia Boyd provides an excellent overview of the types of visitors that came to Nazi Germany before war erupted, by weaving many sources and eyewitness accounts together.

Boyd's travelogues do not begin with Hitler's rise to power, but instead record views and statements of tourists and visitors right from the end of World War 1 and the birth complications of the Weimar Republic. From there on it chronologically follows the developments in Germany up until August 1939. The 21 chapters are arrayed both chronologically and topically - there is 'Old Soldiers' about visiting veterans, 'Hitler's Games' about the Olympic Games 1936, and visitors being increasingly confronted with the growing anti-semitism in '"Peace" and Shattered Glass' in the wake of the Munich Agreement and the Kristallnacht 1938.

From an impressive array of sources, Boyd summons professional soldiers, diplomats, school children, Chinese students, pilots, nurses and 'it' girls from London that recorded their personal impression of Germany under Hitler. Among these witnessed we increasingly find resistance fighters (and those to become one), English families faced with Jewish refugees for the first time, and also Nazi sympathizers like Unity Valkyrie Mitford, of whom Boyd writes:

The story of Unity - the fifth of Lord and Lady Redesdale's famous brood of seven - is that of an unhappy, not particularly bright young woman finding glamour and purpose in a cult religion. She might have become prey to any number of eccentric beliefs or deities but unfortunately for her, and those around her, she fell for the Führer.

Whereas often the view towards Nazi Germany pre-1939 is dominated by the events playing out and being recorded in Berlin, Boyd's book is nicely balanced, presenting quotes from all over the German Reich and Austria. Student Joan Wakefield, for example, recorded an encounter from Upper Silesia on the border with Czechoslovakia in 1938:

On the road back to Rauden, they met 'hundreds' of tanks and lorries filled with soldiers. 'All a bit terrifying,' commented Joan. But anxiety melted away as she was absorbed once again into the daily pattern of riding, swimming in cold forest pools, parties, practical jokes and the inevitable tennis.

'Travellers in the Third Reich' is a hefty tome in hardcover, and surely nothing for the beach. But all the different sources and viewpoints are neatly weaved together and I almost devoured the book, eager to learn more about the many protagonists - and if the reader gets lost in all those fellow travelers, there's a handy dramatis personae at the end of the book; which also comes with a fine cover imitating a 1930s tourists add by kid-ethic.com, as well as maps and black-and-white images.  

Two things stand out: the widespread anti-semitism that prevailed also in the anglophone world before the 2nd World War, and how naive many of the visitors are when faced with obvious propaganda or even criminal machinations they witnessed. This is an important and nuanced book, one that shows that not all the people from future Allied countries perceived Nazi Germany as dangerous, and that a feeling of goodwill was quite strong especially in Britain in those years. And it shows that something we, in hindsight, might call dark tourism was not so dark for those undertaking it, as long as the streets were clean and the beer was flowing.  

Paddy Fermor made it to Istanbul, and spent the remainder of the 30s in southern Europe and Greece; only to be called back to England to join the army in 1939. Because of his knowledge of the area he became a Special Operations Executive and parachuted into Crete, where he became one of the few Englishmen aiding the local resistance fighters, famously capturing German general Kreipe in 1944.

The pupils from Strand School never returned to Germany; the father of one of the victims, Jack Eaton, led a futile legal battle against the failings of their guardian teacher, and in the end erected a private memorial to his lost child, one that was not utilised by the Hitler Youth - maybe because the story behind it was too personal, unusable for any propaganda effort.

Nazi Germany affected them all, in one or another. In her afterword, Boyd underlines the fact that the 12 years of Nazi Germany are not only still an endlessly fascinating period of time; but that these days it is imperative to look at the reasons for the rise of the Nazis and what it means for us today, still.

More than eight decades after Hitler became chancellor we are still haunted by the Nazis. It is right that we should be.

About the book:
Travellers in the Third Reich: The Rise of Fascism Through the Eyes of Everyday People (2017) by Julia Boyd is published by Elliott & Thompson. Support your local bookshop!

About the reviewer:
Marcel is the books editor of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place and author of Babushka’s Journey: The Dark Road to Stalin’s Wartime Camps. This November, Marcel is launching the books with a series of events in Berlin, Dublin, Belfast, Dundalk and Solingen. You can find details of Marcel’s book tour here.

Mono no aware: Two Japanese Gardens

FriesImage.jpg

By Kenny Fries:

We are extremely happy to publish this excerpt from the new book In the Province of Gods by Kenny Fries, which will be launched on the 17th September at the Schwules Museum in Berlin.

To noted translator Sam Hamill, mono no aware is “a resonance found in nature. . . . a natural poignancy in the beauty of temporal things. . . . Aware originally meant simply emotion initiated by the engagement of the senses.”  Ivan Morris, in his study of The Tale of Genji, says aware refers to “the emotional quality inherent in objects, people, nature, and . . . a person’s internal response to emotional aspects of the external world.”  Donald Richie writes, “The awareness is highly self-conscious, and what moves me is, in part, the awareness of being moved, and the mundane quality of the things doing the moving.”

My guidebook’s photo of Kyoto’s famous garden at Ryōan-ji shows some small pebbles in three divided sections.  This confuses me.  Could this be a garden?  It looks more like a close-up of carefully arranged spices in a kitchen cupboard.

Lafcadio Hearn, in “In a Japanese Garden,” writes:  

Now, a Japanese garden is not a flower garden; neither is it made for cultivating plants.  In nine cases out of ten there is nothing in it resembling a flower bed.  Some gardens may contain scarcely a sprig of green; some have nothing green at all, and consist entirely of rocks and pebbles and sand. . . . In order to comprehend the beauty of a Japanese garden it is necessary to understand —or at least to learn to understand—the beauty of stones.  Not of stones quarried by the hand of man, but of stones shaped by nature only.  Until you can feel, and keenly feel, that stones have character, that stones have tones and values, the whole artistic meaning of a Japanese garden cannot be revealed to you.

The rock garden at Ryōan-ji is small, only thirty feet deep and seventy-eight feet wide.  It consists of fifteen rocks, each of different size, color and texture, placed in five groupings, surrounded by a sea of finely raked grayish-white sand.  Viewed from the veranda of the monk’s quarters, the garden is surrounded on its other three sides by a clay wall.  The wall might have once been pale white, but now is light rust and contains chance patterns; over many years the wall has been stained by oil.

From no one point can all fifteen rocks be seen.  No matter where one sits, only fourteen rocks, at most, can be seen at one time.  I notice a group of students counting the rocks.  My eyes move from the students back to the rocks, first alighting on one group, then another, and then I become fixated on the Tàpies-like pattern on the oil-stained wall.

Looking at the garden, what seems like foreground becomes background; background becomes foreground.  The wall is most prominent; then one of the rock groupings, or a single rock; then focus is on the raked sand.  I realize why the guidebook photo is a close-up of a tiny corner edge of the garden:  it is impossible to see all at once; the experience of Ryōan-ji is cumulative.  

How long have I been here sitting here, looking? 

How can something so still—so permanent—be, at the same, just as evanescent? 

Although many have interpreted the meaning of the garden—a representation of islands in an ocean, some famous mountains from ancient Chinese texts, a tiger chasing its cub, a symbol for the Buddhist principle of unknowing—I have not ventured to interpret the garden beyond the experience of my viewing.

I get up and walk around to the other side of the monks’ quarters.  I bend down to get a closer look at the tsukubai, the stone water basin, on which there are four chiseled Japanese characters.  The sign says that reading clockwise, including the hole in the middle of the water-filled basin, the characters mean, “I learn only to be contented.”

*****

The tour of Shugakuin Rikyu, on the other side of Kyoto, is in Japanese.  I am the only gaijin, a foreigner, on the tour, the only person who does not understand nor speak Japanese.

Shugakuin Rikyu covers a large area; there are three levels, each with its own gardenand a distinctly different design.  The two lower gardens are small and enclosed:  ponds, a stream, waterfalls, stones, lanterns designed around spare wood imperial-style villas. 

At the entrance to the upper garden, a path to the right rises through a hedge-covered stone stairway. 

Daijoubu desu ka?  Daijoubu?”—“Are you okay?  Is it okay?”—my fellow tourists keep asking me as we climb the stone path.

 “Daijoubu, daijoubu, I’m okay, I’m okay” I assure them.

With the obstruction of the hedge, there is no view of the garden before ascent.   However, once Rinuntei, the teahouse at the top of the stairs, is reached, the garden below—the clear pond reflecting all the garden’s pines and maple trees, another teahouse, the two bridges leading across islands to the pond’s other shore—can be seen.  All of this is framed by the surrounding mountains, including the sacred Mount Hiei, not belonging to the garden but part of it, from which it is said the garden’s pond, which also reflects the mountains as well as its streams and waterfalls, is fed.            

This is my first experience of shakkei, the principle of “borrowed scenery”:  the surrounding landscape becomes part of the garden.  This does not mean placing the garden so it has beautiful scenery nearby but actually incorporating shapes and textures of the surrounding landscape, and repeating those elements, as part of the garden itself.  It is, Donald Richie writes, as if “the hand of the Japanese reaches out and enhances (appropriates) all that is most distant.  Anything out there can become nature.  The world is one, a seamless whole, for those who can see it.”

At Shugakuin Rikyu, the hedge that at first seemed just a hedge is still a hedge.  But the placement of the hedge, its purpose, unknown at first encounter, is only revealed at the right moment, heightening the experience of revelation.  The view of the entire garden is delayed for maximum impact, delayed until it can be seen as “a seamless whole.”

*****

FriesCover.jpg

About the book and author:

This is an excerpt adapted from In the Province of the Gods, which received the Creative Capital literature grant, and will be published in September by University of Wisconsin Press.  In the Gardens of Japan, a poem sequence, was recently published by Garden Oak Press.  Kenny Fries’s other books include The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory and Body, Remember:  A Memoir.  He is a two-time Fulbright Scholar (Japan and Germany), was a Creative Arts Fellow of the Japan/US Friendship Commission and National Endowment for the Arts, and is a faculty member of the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Goddard College. 

The Library: Wherever the Firing Line Extends - Ireland and the Western Front, by Ronan McGreevy

Read by Marcel Krueger:

One of the interior decoration staples of many an Irish pub, or really any self-proclaimed 'quirky' beerhouse between Norway and Sardinia is the 'On this site in 1856 (or 1768 or 1699) nothing happened'-sign. There is no statement more untrue. Even though the events that took place near the sign over the last centuries may have gone mostly unrecorded in written or oral history, it does not mean that all the love stories, tragedies, atrocities that occurred there have never happened. For this exact reason, I am an advocate of memorials, regardless if they are large Victorian stone slabs in public parks, small blue plaques on buildings or even smaller, unobtrusive ones like the German Stolpersteine dedicated to the memory of Holocaust victims or the Last Address plaques in Moscow remembering the victims of Stalin's purges in the 1930s. All these memorials and monuments help us to view both the past and the present in context, to provide details and names of happenings long ago that we would have otherwise passed by without thought.

Ronan McGreevy has done a similar thing in his book: through a framework of site-specific memorials, all accessible today throughout southern Belgium, the north of France and Germany, he paints a picture of the actions of Irish troops on the western front in World War I. Beginning with the first shots fired at Casteau in Belgium to, incidentally, one of the last 1918 actions near Mons (where a marble plaque remembers the 5th Royal Irish Lancers) just 12 kilometres from that first engagement. Printed in hardcover and enhanced with black-and-white and colour images as well as maps for most chapters, the book is structured along both the British troop movements and the memorials that came after. Some chapters focus on specific military actions and the units involved, like the railway station at Le Pilly and the 2nd Royal Irish Regiment; others focus on single soldiers, like poet Francis Ledwidge (remembered by a plaque from 1998 near Passchendaele) or Robert Armstrong, a World War I veteran who became the head gardener of the Valenciennes military cemetery after the war and who died in a German prison camp in 1944. One story and chapter that stood out for me is the story of the Iron 12, twelve Irish prisoners executed by the Germans after being caught hiding with Belgian civilians.  

Despite that fragmented approach, the book manages to provide an excellent overview of the Irish involvement in the British campaign 1914 - 1918 in contrast with the Easter Rising in 1916 and republicanism at home. As McGreevy puts it in the introduction: 'It is perhaps the great paradox of Irish history that more Irishmen died fighting for the Crown than ever died fighting against it.' Sometimes the fragmentation of the chapters however seems to lead McGreevy slightly astray, and in just a few paragraphs we cover decades and move from the detailed description of an action on the ground over to events in Ireland many years later and just barely find our way back to the actions on the western front. Also, due to the wealth of details presented in here the book will mainly appeal to amateur historians and other World War I enthusiasts.

And yet the strength is the concrete interface of occurrence and memory expressed as memorials, and their connection with the landscape. The writing is strongest when McGreevy explores the sometimes hidden or unobtrusive location of the memorials and their equally unobtrusive history and changing political significance, from the small plaque at Mouse Trap Farm to the large Island of Ireland Peace Park in Messines, opened by Irish president Mary McAleese, Queen Elizabeth II and Belgian King Albert II in 1998.  

'Wherever the Firing Line Extends' can be used as guide book on the ground, and at the same time is a fine addition to the canon of publications on the double identity of the Irish soldiers in World War I. While the book is focusing on individual stories in the face of industrial scale slaughter, it is the new approach of appreciating the memorials later generations left for these men that makes it a refreshing read. After all it is for us, the living, that these memorials exist. They remind us not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

About the reviewer: Marcel Krueger is a writer, translator, and editor, and mainly writes non-fiction about places, their history, and the journeys in between. His articles and essays have been published in the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, Slow Travel Berlin, the Matador Network, and CNN Travel, amongst others. He has translated Wolfgang Borchert and Jörg Fauser into English, and his latest book Babushka's Journey - The Dark Road to Stalin's Wartime Camps will be published by I.B. Tauris in 2017.

Swimming in the city and country: Turning - by Jessica J. Lee

IMAGE: Katrin Schönig

IMAGE: Katrin Schönig

Read by Paul Scraton:

Early on in the pages of Turning, a swimming memoir about taking a dip in 52 lakes in Berlin and the surrounding Brandenburg countryside, Jessica J. Lee admits to fears and insecurities in the water. This is something I share. I have never been a massive fan of swimming, whether in the sea or the swimming pool, and especially when out of my depth. It has only been in the past couple of years, swimming in some of the very same lakes that Lee visits in this excellent book, that I began to conquer those fears.

It was then that I began to understand what people were talking about when they - like Lee herself - quoted Roger Deakin and his description of the ‘frog’s eye view’. As Lee describes being in the water in Brandenburg, surrounded by the pines and the sky, I can picture it exactly as I have experienced it as well. You do get a different view from the water, a different understanding of place. And that, for me at least, is ultimately the story of this book: as well as personal history sensitively and bravely told, Turning is about a person gaining a feeling for the history and the stories of the places she visits, deepening her knowledge of the geology, ecology, communities and political history of the city she lives in and the surrounding countryside, each time she takes to the water.

As someone who both shares these interests about place in general, and about Berlin and Brandenburg specifically, it is not surprising that I found myself nodding in agreement and recognition as I read. There were other elements of the story that resonated as well: the loneliness of being new in a big city and of building a personal connection to the place by getting to know and to love the landscape, the forests, the suburban S-Bahn lines and the gruff owners of rural snack kiosks.

Lee is an elegant writer; precise in her description, thoughtful in her observation, and most of all interested in the world that surrounds her. This is not always the case when it comes to memoirs, which can sometimes become so tied up in the internal emotions of the writer that there is no space for any exterior, for the world around them, and therefore context to the story they are trying to tell. In Turning, Lee’s personal journey is deeper and richer for the reader because the lakes and their surroundings are characters in the story. As is the weather. As are the seasons. The plan was to explore the 52 lakes over the course of a year, and so Lee was swimming at the height of summer and in the depths of the winter, breaking the ice with a little hammer in order to clear enough room for her to have a swim.

Indeed, one of my favourite lines in the book - one that had me reaching for a pen in order to scribble it down for later - concerned the shifting of the seasons: “It’s all too easy,” Lee writes, “to be sucked under by sadness in the autumn.” I understand that emotion only too well, even if I haven’t (yet) tried a plunge in an autumnal pool to try and alleviate the October blues.

And then, a few pages later, more recognition: “I’ve become divided, stretched across places.” At the very time I was reading this book, I was working on my own project about walking the outskirts of Berlin. One of the motivations for these walks was to try and gain a better understanding of the city I live in a time when my feelings about place, belonging and identity had been thrown into turmoil by referendum results and a series of trips “home” that made me wonder, more than I ever had before, where “home” actually is. I too have felt stretched and divided. The only question, is whether it matters. Each walk, each swim, can help the clarification process.

Walking or swimming. Building our connection and understanding of a place by interacting with the landscape, the history and the people, can be done in different ways. The strength of the book is, I believe, that it not only is a good story very well told, but that it will make readers think about their own places, their own feelings of home and belonging, of their own lakes, forests or city streets, and think a little deeper about them. Jessica J. Lee’s is a trip to the lake well worth taking, inspiring even this reluctant swimmer to reach for his swimming shorts (if not the ice hammer).

Support your local bookshop! Go and get your copy of Turning by Jessica J. Lee there. Meanwhile, here is Jessica's website.

The Library: Signal Failure, by Tom Jeffreys

Review: Christo Hall

For those who haven’t kept abreast with recent British infrastructural projects, HS2 is a £55bn high-speed railway plan first mooted by David Cameron’s government in 2009. It’s an attempt to renew Northern England’s economic potential after years of neglect from Westminster and deindustrialisation that has accentuated a north-south divide in the country. For its advocates, including the previous chancellor, George Osborne, it will “change the economic geography of this country”, for its opponents it’s over budget and comes at a huge cost to the areas affected – the homes that require to be demolished and the environment.

It’s these various divisions that Tom Jeffreys, in his first book, Signal Failure, grapples with via his attempt to walk the length of the HS2 route – a 119-mile trek that takes him out of Central London, through endless suburbs, beautiful and ordinary countryside and into Birmingham. Along the way he wild camps—in some cases to his own better judgement—in a suburban open space, a pub garden and besides a major road; he meets people that will be affected, in some cases displaced, by HS2; and ponders the disconnect between mind and body as he suffers injury and disappointment halting his attempt to undertake the walk in one sitting.

For one thing I have learnt that I am not a nature writer.

It’s nonsense to try to categorise a book to a single genre and it’s especially so for this one as Jeffreys smoothly and deliberately blends elements of nature writing, journalistic reportage and a meta-review of writing about nature and place. Each of these strands raise compelling passages, such as his observations of how an infrastructure project’s simulations and renders fail to depict relationships with real people, conversely his portrayal of a West Midlands dairy farmer’s complex relationship with HS2’s impact on his land, and Jeffreys’ framing of his book in the context of nature writing that has preceded it, making it in part an ode to the likes of Bruce Chatwin, Richard Mabey and Roger Deakin. It’s a signal of how much of an admirer he is of nature writing, and it reveals a kind of imposter syndrome, that Jeffreys feels incapable to write authoritatively about nature – that’s not to say that this is a bad thing, such reverence offers a welcome subjectivity and an absorbing down-to-earth tone.

Why does building for the future so often involve destroying the past?

While born in Buckinghamshire – as it happens near enough on the route of the HS2 – Jeffreys’ fascination for cities is not disguised, neither is his comfort within them. Nature, for many city dwellers, conjures up untamed forces and barbarism yet nevertheless is apotheosised because of its embodiment of a simple, more human life. It’s a view that at times leads Jeffreys to see the city as an encroachment, continually eating away at nature’s resources and beauty, and that impresses a strong tone of regret. Is it a metaphor for something that should have been done about HS2 while there was a greater chance of impacting the plans?

Perhaps the author’s greatest contribution is the perceptive and astute power of his social commentaries throughout the book. There are many striking and quotable phrases that come to mind, such as “you can tell officially approved graffiti because the people are always happy” or his insight to point out that state and council-funded outdoor gyms erected at the time of the 2012 Olympics, encouraging exercise, coincided with McDonalds being the Olympics’ official restaurant. In other passages he asks: “at what point does psychogeography become tourism?” or notes that “what bothers me is the implication that the UK’s only landscapes worth saving are those that fit within the aesthetics of the late Romantics.”

Somebody once wrote that as the mayor he would like to see his local country lanes neat and tidy and easily passable. But as a poet he would prefer them artfully overgrown.

Signal Failure is an enthralling and irresistible read, and difficult to review because along the way Jeffreys produces a better summary and analysis of his own book and its place in the canon of nature writing better than I or any reviewer could. As such this is a thoroughly researched book, substantiated by the tomes that weigh down his backpack throughout his walk. But it’s also a vital reminder that it takes more than demographic analyses and cost-benefit models to understand the value of our environment and our place within it.

What’s a train without its passengers, a town without its residents, or any kind of journey without its traveller? – Warts, imposter syndrome, injuries and all.

Christo Hall has written for The Quietus, Prospect, Review 31, White Noise and others, often about cities and urbanism. He is online editor of the Bartlett School of Architecture’s LOBBY magazine and founding editor of Cureditor, a site that recommends arts and culture articles.

Signal Failure by Tom Jeffreys is published by Influx Press

The Library: Down to the Sea in Ships by Horatio Clare

Read by: Marcel Krueger

I awoke on the ferry from Cherbourg to Rosslare from ferry dreams, getting lost while searching for the ferry port in a small Italian seaside village in my slumber. Outside the cabin window, in the violet early autumn dawn I could see the dark shape of Cornwall; St. Ives, perhaps, or Tintagel, across the calm and dark blue sea. I knew that the old ferry that I was sailing on, built in 1987 in Finland, was crossing one of the more busy shipping lanes in the Irish Sea, but of other ships, or the men manning them, there was nothing to be seen. For miles there was only the calm sea, the dark shape of the land and a few seagulls hanging over the waves.

To make the world of the men and their ships – the countless trade vessels and tankers crisscrossing the world’s oceans under the authority of commerce – visible for us landlubbers is the declared intention of Horatio Clare and his book. Joining two very different container ships on their journeys from Felixstowe to Los Angeles and Antwerp to Montreal, he provides us with both a vivid portrait of modern-day sailors and their ships, and an oral history of merchant sailing and its many disasters. He first boards the Gerd Maersk, a large modern container ship sailing around half of the globe under the command of Danish officers and with a mainly Filipino crew (Filipino merchantmen make up an astonishing 75% of the world’s merchant crews) and uses the many stops and locations on the route not only to paint a picture of the daily routine on merchant ships, but also to view his contemporary surroundings through the eyes of past chroniclers of the sea and to present the history of merchant sailing.

Coleridge makes an appearance, and Hayklut, and of course there is Conrad as well. Clare talks about sea battles in the Mediterranean, about grumpy Chinese pilots and all the contents of the containers, forever unseen to the men shipping them. His second journey on board the Maersk Pembroke is quite a different one, on an old ship that does not stop anywhere between leaving the berth and reaching her destination. As Clare states, 'I wanted storms and I wanted a ship nothing like the great Gerd.' This second part of the book and its somewhat narrower setting is mostly concerned with the weather, and uses Richard Woodman's brilliant book The Real Cruel Sea as groundwork to contemplate the fight of the US and UK merchant navies against both the sea and German submarines between 1939 and 1943.

After the first few pages I became somewhat apprehensive, as here Clare seems to praise the sailors and their employer (and provider of the author’s passage on the ships), the Danish shipping giant Maersk, to the skies.  But reading on, the author does not shy away from addressing all the (for us consumers unseen) issues of modern merchant sailing: the fact that Filipino merchantmen are paid 25% less than their European counterparts purely based on their nationality, and that even today stowaways are still being set adrift, sometimes. He also speaks about the environmental influences of commercial shipping and our influence on the world's oceans, about that the ships only use the crudest of fuels when on the high seas:  

'Seen from the perspective of the deep we are alien, a quasi/Martian species inhabiting a universe of almost entirely different physical and temporal conditions. As the Gerd pounds on far above it is as if she is a spacecraft, one of many in her vastly high orbit. Now and then one gropes down, blindly, with a net. Plunder and pollution are our only contributions to the worlds under the sea.'

But this is not a mere criticism of commerce and the men keeping its containers safe for us. Clare, an acclaimed journalist and writer, manages to weave personal portraits of the ship’s officers and crews, their motivation and dreams, into a wider narrative of men at sea. With its fine observations and evocative prose, Down to the Sea in Ships is one of those rare non-fiction books that the reader can get properly lost in, despite its portrait of the reality of life at sea. In here are pirates, lost fleets on a bitter lake, hundreds of birds hitching rides on ships, and the prohibition of beer on most modern merchant vessels. The Germans have a word for such a book – a Schmöker – a huge tome that is perfect to get lost in on long rainy afternoons in armchairs. Or on ferry voyages across the Irish Sea.

Down to the Sea in Ships is published in hardcover by Chatto & Windus and in paperback by Vintage.

You can read more reviews by Marcel in all four editions of Elsewhere, available via our online shop.

The Library: Yugoslavia, My Fatherland by Goran Vojnović

Read by: Paul Scraton

In the departure lounge of Ljubljana airport, two hours early for our flight back to Germany, I pulled a book out of my bag and start to read. Two flights and about five hours later I read the final page as the plane made the final approach to Berlin’s Tegel Airport. I had crossed the Alps and the heart of Germany, but really I had been in the countries of the former Yugoslavia, as explored through the eyes of a narrator who has discovered, sixteen years after he believed his father was dead, that in fact that this barely remembered man who was an officer in the Yugoslav People’s Army is actually alive and living in hiding, a fugitive of the Hague as a wanted war criminal. Yugoslavia, My Fatherland by Goran Vojnović tells the story of the narrator’s journey to find his father, a journey that causes him to reflect on how the disintegration of his family is tied to the disintegration of the country, and the world, that they used to call home.

I came to this book by coincidence – the man sitting next to me on my flight out to Ljubljana a week earlier was reading (in Slovenian) a book by Goran Vojnović who was then profiled (in English) in a magazine I picked up at the airport, waiting for my bags to appear. I have long been interested in the history of the former Yugoslavia; ever since I was a student in Leeds starting out my degree only two years after the Dayton Peace Accords had brought to an end the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina that had played out on our teatime television screens throughout my teenage years. Reading about Yugoslavia, My Fatherland in the magazine was what led me to a book described by the English publishers as a work that “deals intimately with the tragic fates of the people who managed to avoid the bombs, but were unable to escape the war.”

Goran Vojnović was born in Slovenia in 1980 and is a well-respected director and screenwriter as well as being a bestselling novelist. I would love to speak to him at some point about how much of the background of his protagonist – school experiences in Ljubljana in the 1990s for instance – reflect his own, as the power of this novel is in how Vojnović manages to explore the break-up of Yugoslavia from the multitude of perspectives in the different parts of the former Federal Republic, allowing all voices to have their say without, it seems to me, judgement or bias one way or the other. One of the finest scenes in the book is when his new classmate in Ljubljana, where the teenage narrator has moved with his mother from Pula, Croatia via Belgrade and Novi Sad, explains what is happening in Yugoslavia via the nationalities of the other children in the class.

Throughout the book the narrator remembers the slow collapse of the world of his childhood through remembered scenes in apartments, the tone of the newsreaders on the evening television and the atmosphere in Ljubljana where he lives but never quite feels at home. The other strand of the story is of course the present-day search for his father, and the impact of the knowledge of the crimes he is alleged to have committed in a village in Slavonia. The story is told in a matter-of-fact, sometimes humorous tone, and Vojnović certainly has a flair for set-piece scenes, both in the description and the dialogue, but what is most impressive is how the battle of ideas that reflects battles taking place elsewhere in real life, and the complexity of personal identities both in the time of the disintegration of Yugoslavia and today, are told through the multitude of characters who appear in the book. This is impressive writing, and one of the best tellings of the Yugoslavia story that I have read.

This is a novel about place, about memory, and about how the world of our childhood can be destroyed so that it no longer exists, even if it remains a name on a map. Along the way it deals with a number of signifiers of home and belonging, from the behaviour of guests at a wedding to the differences in language, not only between the Slovene his mother insists on using when they move to Ljubljana and the Serbo-Croatian that has been the family language up to that point, but the differences within the latter, when his Bosnian classmates make fun of the narrator as he speaks the Italian-tinged version of his childhood home on the coast.

Goran Vojnović tells this story in relatively straightforward language, but the more you read the more you realise how complex the novel is as it creates this portrait of a disintegrating country through the personal story of a disintegrating family. It is a reminder of the power of literature, and of fiction, to help us come to the essential truth of history and its impact on people. Much credit must go to the translator Noah Charney and the publishers Istros Books for bringing it to an English-speaking audience as this is an important and powerful book, and one which deserves to be read as widely as possible.

Yugoslavia, My Fatherland by Goran Vojnović, translated by Noah Charney, is available via the publishers, Istros Books.