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

PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: Sam Jordison for Narges Mohammadi

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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 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.






PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: An Introduction

Clockwise from top left: Oleg Sentsov, Dina Meza, Behrooz Boochani, Nedim Türfent, Narges Mohammadi and Dawit Isaak.

Clockwise from top left: Oleg Sentsov, Dina Meza, Behrooz Boochani, Nedim Türfent, Narges Mohammadi and Dawit Isaak.

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. First up, an introduction to the project by Ellen Wiles: 

Elsewhere. It’s a beautiful word, to my ears – a word that alludes to daydreaming of travel to faraway climes and cultures, to the zing of immersion in a new place that transcends the mundanity of everyday surroundings, to fantasies of slipping the shackles of routine and setting out on an unfamiliar earthen path, strewn with pine needles, perhaps, leading up through a forest sputtering with strange bird calls towards the crest of a hill in anticipation of a lavender horizon patterned with unfamiliar shapes.

It is also a poignant word. It suggests a yearning, a longing, a separation from a beloved, a sense that the place being imagined is not yet accessible and may never be so – and it also suggests a sense of displacement to somewhere that feels other; or enforced confinement in a place that you still call home but that has changed almost beyond recognition, perhaps because it has become oppressive and threatening, governed by forces that would wish you elsewhere. 

These latter, darker senses of elsewhere permeate the lives and work of most of the writers supported by English PEN, and, consequently, the preoccupations of the UK-based writers who pay tribute to their incredible work and bravery in this series of new literary pieces, one of which will be published each day over the coming week.

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For any readers who are unfamiliar with the work of English PEN – or its many international sister associations – it is a vitally important charity that has two main strands. Firstly, it promotes the freedom to write and read, and campaigns for writers at risk around the world, including writers who have been disappeared, imprisoned, persecuted or exiled because of their work. Secondly, it promotes international literature, runs a unique literary translation grants programme that enables more writing to be shared around the world, publishes the international digital literary zine, Pen Transmissions, and awards prizes to outstanding writers. To further all these functions and to engage wider audiences and raise funds, the charity runs regular events, from vigils to film screenings, panel discussions and book launches. 

The literary pieces of that feature in this series were written for the 2019 English PEN Modern Literature Festival, which is co-curated by Cat Lucas, English PEN’s Writers at Risk Programme Manager, and Steven J. Fowler, a poet, artist and educator, and which, this year, evolved in a spin-off event at the Greenwich Book Festival, staged by Sam Jordison. The structural concept of the series is that a group of UK-based writers are each allocated one English PEN-supported writer who is at risk elsewhere in the world, and are commissioned to write and perform a new piece of work in solidarity with them. As Fowler describes this project: it ‘asks writers, poets, novelists, playwrights and artists to come together to continue English PEN's relationship with innovative contemporary literature by celebrating writers at risk around the world. New pieces of poetry, text, reportage are performed to evidence the struggle of fellow writers across the globe, in solidarity. The events are intended as a call to membership.’ 

I was honoured to be invited to be one of the UK-based writers this year – an invitation that meant a lot to me, particularly since I used to work as a human rights barrister and so have a longstanding concern with the right freedom of expression. Since none of the writer pairings are able to meet in person during this process, I like to imagine each of our new pieces being folded into a literary paper aeroplane and flown from each writer in the UK to their counterpart elsewhere, floating unnoticed by the powers that be over borders and through prison walls. 

To take on writing a piece for another writer whose situation is so much harder than one’s own, and whose freedom is so much more limited, feels like a weight of responsibility as well as a privilege. Steve has described his feelings, when he co-curated the inaugural festival, on being presented with a pack of summaries of the lives of thirty English PEN-supported writers at risk: ‘When I received the files on the writers at risk… I was just about to board a long flight and so had the chance to read them in one go, over about nine hours, in the strange environs of a plane. It’s hard to describe the feeling afterwards, certainly the sense of responsibility, that I had sought out this project, enthusiastic from the off, but perhaps not truly prepared for the reality of the writers we would be writing about. It’s mawkish to speak of admiration, but coming face to face with such will, such commitment to principle… left me feeling as ashamed as I was inspired. Perhaps one can never really divorce oneself from the selfish question of whether I would continue to speak up in such circumstances, facing prison, torture, perhaps death. To risk my life and the lives of those I love.’

Each individual contributor featured in this series has experienced strong emotions in the process of stepping into the shoes of their allocated writer and attempting to craft a literary response to their situation. As Sam Jordison puts it:

‘First and foremost, there's the fury and sadness on behalf of the writers who are so unjustly imprisoned and kept from their homes, families and work. The other thing that hit me as a publisher is that when faced with similar regimes and circumstances every single writer from Galley Beggar Press [which he co-directs] would probably be in jail too. That made me feel proud of my writers - but also afraid on their behalf... And also reminded me again that the people English PEN supports are very close to us and a vital part of our world. They are like people I know and love. It is to the detriment of us all that they have been treated so badly.’

That being said, as Steve always emphasizes at the end of each festival event, the weight borne by each of the contributing writers is miniscule compared to that borne by Cat Lucas in her capacity as the Writers at Risk Programme Manager, year after year, as she works tirelessly to support these writers at risk and many more, lugging all their heartrending stories around with her in a giant backpack. 

Despite all that weightiness, what comes through from these literary tributes is neither a sense of despairing gloom, nor a flood of self-involved guilt from the UK-based writers about how easy their writing and reading lives are in comparison to their counterparts elsewhere. That would be to diminish the magnitude of those writers’ spirits, literary talents, and resilience in the face of oppression and brutality. There is powerful, thoughtful, experimental, poetic and uplifting writing on display here, in fitting testament to the writers for whom each piece was created. So I urge you to delve with us into the spirit of the festival this week, and to read each of these pieces as they are published. 

You will find out more about each writer pairing in the six pieces to come, but I’ll introduce them briefly here. 

The first featured writer at risk is Narges Mohammadi, 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. Her tribute is written by Sam Jordison, who, as I have mentioned, is a publisher, and is also the author of Crap Towns, and the co-author of Literary London, among many other titles. Drawing on Narges’s love of mountains, Sam has written an evocative piece describing a morning walk he loves to take on the mountain above his mother’s house in the Lake District, and reflecting on Narges’s plight as a fellow parent. 

The second writer at risk featured is Dawit Isaak, 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. Isaak’s tribute comes from Sara Upstone, Professor of Contemporary Literature and Head of the Department of Humanities at Kingston University, who specialises in literatures of identity, the politics of the body and questions of the human. She has crafted a beautiful, moving and poetic piece exploring the process of empathy. 

The third second writer at risk featured is Behrooz Boochani, 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. His book, No Friend But The Mountains, composed by necessity via WhatsApp, details the extreme hardship on Manus Island, and won the prestigious Victorian premier’s literary prize. His tribute comes from writer Paul Ewen, aka Francis Plug, author of How to Be a Public Author and Writer in Residence, who hails from New Zealand, and has drawn on Boochani’s recurring memory of the chestnut oak tree to write a piece based on this tree and the hope of refuge that it carries – the writing of required a nocturnal break-in.

The fourth writer at risk featured is Oleg Sentsov, 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. Steven J. Fowler pays tribute to him with two arresting and memorable performances involving the nailing and eating of pieces of fruit.  

The fifth writer at risk featured is Dina Meza, a Honduran journalist and human rights defender, founder and President of PEN Honduras, 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 children. 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. I paid tribute to her in two pieces: a poem and a prose reflection on the implications of such persistent risk-taking for her experience of motherhood.

The final writer at risk featured is Nedim Türfent, 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. His tribute comes from James Miller, author of the novels Lost Boys, Sunshine State and UnAmerican Activities, and a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Kingston University. James’s numerically poetic piece reflects on the relative experience of time both in and out of prison. 

This is of course only a little literary project – and yet the stakes underlying it are high. In this era of global political tumult and climate crisis, when authoritarian and populist governments are sweeping to power, freedom of expression is increasingly under threat, along with the whole precious notion of human rights that was forged in a rare moment of cooperative international reckoning after World War II. As someone who has worked as a lawyer in countries like Myanmar, where freedom of expression, among other human rights, was severely restricted for decades under military rule, this prospect fills me with dread. Those of us who are lucky enough to live in countries like the UK and its European counterparts (at least for now) that have long enjoyed the apparent flourishing of liberal democracy and the freedoms that come with it can no longer afford to take them for granted. The political tyranny that most of us have always thought of as existing ‘elsewhere’ could emerge ‘here’ far more easily and quickly than might be imagined. 

Literature – and the freedom to both read and create it – matters. All of us who believe in this would do well to take action to protect this freedom, to raise our voices and to deploy our pens… or, less romantically, our laptops, tablets and phones. One easy way to make a difference is to join English PEN, or one of its sister organisations. Membership makes a huge difference, and, as Steven J. Fowler has emphasized, every message of support to a writer at risk can give them heart. It is also important just to continue to make time in life to revel in reading, and to support good writing wherever possible. As Ursula K. Le Guin put it: ‘We read books to find out who we are’. We also read and write in order to allow our children to find out who they want to be, to make the world we all live in a better place – and even, melodramatic though it might sound, to save our species. Humans have always made art and told stories, and now, more than ever, our future depends on them. 

***

About the author:
Ellen Wiles 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.

Postcard from... Rüdenhof, Moritzburg

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By Paul Scraton:

In 1943 the artist Käthe Kollwitz left her apartment in the Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg for the final time. The war, which she had campaigned against through her art long before it even began, had forced her out of the city she’d called home for 52 years. Her first destination was Nordhausen, but that soon became a target too, and so in July of 1944 she arrived at the Rüdenhof, a manor house on the edge of Moritzburg in Saxony. There she was given two rooms, and a balcony from which she could look out across the fields and the rolling landscape of this town a few miles north of Dresden. There were many refugees, both in the Rüdenhof and elsewhere in town, and hardly any of them knew that they had the famous artist in their midst. It was to be her final stop. She would not experience the end of the war, dying just a couple of weeks before the German surrender, in her room in Moritzburg on the 22 April 1945.

Today, the town of Moritzburg draws visitors from Dresden to wander the castle grounds or the only lighthouse in landlocked Saxony. On a July morning there are plenty of people strolling in the sunshine, crossing the bridge to the castle where it stands on an island, eating ice cream or drinking an early beer on the cafe terraces. At the Rüdenhof, it is quieter. One small group explores the rooms of the house, now turned into a museum devoted to the life and work of Käthe Kollwitz. We follow them through, tracing the story of the artist from her beginnings in Königsburg in East Prussia and the move to Berlin, her early illustrations and woodcuts, the tragic death of her son during World War I and the pacifism that inspired her work through the 1920s and 1930s, most clearly in her epic War cycle of 1921-23.

Es ist genug gestorben! Keiner darf mehr fallen!

Enough had died during that war to end all wars, and yet Kollwitz would live to see many more fall, including her grandson who was killed in 1942. War had taken a son and a grandson from her. It had changed the boundaries of her world. The only house she ever lived in to survive the second war was the Rüdenhof. Her childhood home in Königsburg was rubble. What would be built in its place was now in Kaliningrad, USSR. Her apartment block in Prenzlauer Berg was destroyed. What was built in its place would look out across a square that would take her name. Kollwitz was gone. Most of the places she called home were gone. But her art and message would live on. 

Summer sunlight shines in despite the blinds in the windows as we walk among her work, so dark and painful yet full of compassion for those who are suffering. When she reached Moritzburg at the end of her long journey, Käthe Kollwitz had left all her art behind. She came only with her diary and a few personal bits and pieces. The group ahead of us ask questions of the guide. Gentle, respectful questions, about a woman, her life and her work. There are not many of us in these rooms today, but it is clear that all of us who are here have been touched by her genius. She speaks to us, all these years on, whether we encounter her in Cologne or Berlin, in an old manor house in Moritzburg or in the pages of a book. She speaks to us and she inspires us. Our job is to make sure we continue to listen. 

***

Paul Scraton is the editor in chief of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place. His latest book is Built on Sand, a novel of Berlin and Brandenburg, published by Influx Press. He also wrote about the places of Käthe Kollwitz in Berlin on his website Under a Grey Sky.

The Käthe-Kollwitz Haus, Moritzburg.

In Walthamstow Forest

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By Dan Carney

Wide, flat dirt paths carving through lush woodland, open meadows flanked by wooded corridors and undulating, densely covered glades. Clusters of hornbeam, oak, and birch, many ancient, pollarded at the top to encourage further growth, presiding over hundreds of plant species; grass, herb, nettle, weed, fern, and wort. Underfoot, the fossil-rich London clay soil, hard and stiff but deceptively quick to churn during wet weather. Birdsong mingling with the low, umbilical hum of traffic on the A104, Epping to Islington, everywhere between, periodically suppressed by the sound of a plane or the sudden and invasive whooping of a siren. Bisected by both the Woodford New Road and the endless, disheveled North Circular, this is the beginning trickle, the tentative first stretch of the north-east London woodland panhandle which will open out into Epping Forest proper, and eventually creep, pleasingly, just beyond the confines of the M25. This part of the forest is a scruffy outpost, often overlooked in favour of its more storied and unbroken counterparts. There are no visitors’ centres, Iron Age settlements, or Grade II-listed timber hunting lodges here, but the paths lead, eventually, to all these things.

The first path, approaching the southernmost entrance to Rising Sun Wood, is inauspicious; a thin, dusty track, cracked and dry in the summer months, running through an open field, reassuringly parallel with the 1930s semis of Forest Rise opposite. The entrance is marked by a wooden post, painted white at the top, ground-secure in the shadow of the trees at the top of Greenway Avenue. Underneath the first flourish of woodland canopy, the path widens, becomes even and firm. The trees are tall, with dramatic branch formations exploring every possible angle. Some are hollowed out, exposing tender white bark. Dead trunk husks lie everywhere. A sparse glade foregrounds the wrought iron gate of the St. Peter’s-in-the-Forest graveyard, where the headstones are lopsided, covered in ivy, many rendered semi-legible by weather and time. The air is comfortable and still.   

Just to the north is an open, unkempt meadow. Large oaks guard secretive glades along one side, hash paraphernalia and half-empty chicken boxes strewn at the thresholds. Opposite, behind the incongruously shiny Empire Lounge on Woodford New Road (“Enjoy The Food, Enjoy The People, Enjoy The Vibe”), lays Bulrush Pond. Bog-like, derelict, murky water mostly obscured by large clumps of reeds. Once there were paddle-wheel boats, ice-cream kiosks, and deckchairs, before widespread car ownership enabled the leisure-seeking families who gathered here on bank holidays to travel further afield. It’s quieter now, but by no means deserted or bereft. Joggers, cyclists, dog-walkers, families on short-hop rambles, occasional equestrians, and groups of teenagers punctuate the calm, but now it’s less organized, no longer an end point but a backdrop, a surrounding, or a point on the journey. On a warm summer’s day, the meadow feels enveloping, hermetic, unconnected to anywhere else, only leading back to slightly differing iterations of itself, like a gently fluttering audio loop or blinking, cyclical visual display. Bucolic and restorative, a place to think things through, but always with something flickering away, faintly, off to the side. A made-for-TV fever dream poking through the idyll. Layers and stories just beyond the lens flare, unseen, unarticulated but ready to emerge and speak, when the wind rises and the nights draw down.

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Back inside the forest cover, the track splits around a stubborn old hornbeam, its knotted roots securely encased under the top layer shingle. The route to Mill Plain is kinder here, on the west side of the A104, where there’s no need to engage with the fractured grimness of the Waterworks Corner pedestrian interchange. This is where the path breaks clear of the cover and ramps up, knobbly, cracked, onto a raised, open ridge, where the track bends gently through the long grass and willowherb. To the right is the Thames Water pumping station, its wonky rear steel fence offering negligible protection from anything with sufficient stature and determination, and the Waterworks Corner roundabout, only metres away. South Woodford to Redbridge, Barking, Beckton, Woodford Green, Loughton, Epping. To the left, the scoop of the Lea Valley. The atmosphere is sleepy and strange, ominously peaceful. Twin paths converge and slope down towards Forest Road, the occasional tent visible through the bushes, and the sharp tops of City of London buildings poke through the trees. Look into the valley-dip from the bridge adjacent and it’s Walthamstow, Tottenham Hale, Edmonton, Harringay, Alexandra Palace, Brent Cross. Stadiums, reservoirs, retail parks, antennae, the ever-present wash of the traffic, distant and interior.

On the other side, nestled behind the roundabout, is a raised, circular grass platform, flat, wide, and empty, aside from a shabby Thames Water brick hut at the edge. Marked, appropriately, as “The Circle” on Google Maps, it offers readymade laps for joggers, and numerous exits, down the tight, surrounding verge, back into the cover of the forest. Manmade and incongruent, barely visible from the road, it’s easily cast as the site for something more atavistic and obscure. A sacred place, where anonymous figures gather to offer up euphoric human sacrifices to a provincial woodland deity. A landing site for a small extra-terrestrial reconnaissance craft, carved out to order by devoted earthbound aides. A place to hide in the open. Stay too long and the joggers, smiling and efficient, assume – possibly through no fault of their own - a slightly sinister, collective aspect.

The path to the bridge over the A406, just beyond, is gravelly and uneven, bricks and slate pieces baked into the dirt, recalling the clay pits and brick kiln once residing nearby. A well-covered passage, accessible via a tight, cosy glade, runs parallel with the road, overlooking it. Thorny and narrow, discarded carrier bags hanging forlornly from bushes, a person-thin viewing corridor for the unending, thrusting snake of the daylight Walthamstow traffic. Crossing the bridge, to the South Woodford side, is a journey of metres but feels like an escape from this exhaust-choked claustrophobia into something wholesome, time-frozen, pastoral. The trackway widens, getting flatter and kinder underfoot. The canopy is less oppressive, offering a pleasing combination of light and shade. Patches of sunlight cast through the trees, dappling the floor. Little private clearings just off the main track lead into exquisite mini-mazes. To the left, an intricate branch structure built around a large horizontal trunk, and a carved stone memorial marking the birth site of a celebrated gypsy evangelist. Everything honeyed in yellows and browns. With minimal effort, you can block out the vehicle drone. Approaching the open field in front of Oak Hill, boundaries begin to dissolve; thoughts flicker and fade, hazy before they have fully formed. You start to feel drowsy, detached, separate, before the sudden rustle-rush of a small animal brings you back, sharply, to jittery alertness. You turn and hurry back the way you came. The sun hangs low and follows you, blinking and glinting through the gaps, and the temperature starts to drop.

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Dan Carney is a musician and writer from north-east London. He has released two albums as Astronauts via the Lo Recordings label, and also works as a composer/producer of music for TV and film. His work has been heard on a range of television networks, including BBC, ITV, Channel 4, HBO, Sky, and Discovery. He also has a PhD in developmental psychology, and has authored a number of academic research papers on cognitive processing in genetic syndromes and special skills in autism. His other interests include walking, writing, and spending far too much time thinking about Tottenham Hotspur. Dan on Twitter.