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a writer's life Peter Kenny The Writer Ltd. Poetry Travel Working

A pre-Christmas ramble

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A side-street not taken in Vienna.

My double life requires me to switch from working in advertising agencies, back to picking up the threads of my creative life and vice versa. My most recent agency stint was with a lovely crew at DDB Remedy in London, which culminated in six days in Austria. The work was a bit full on, however, so all I could do was imagine the foresty, golden Klimts in nearby Viennese galleries I knew I had no time to see. One night I broke away for half an hour and walked randomly from the hotel, looking wistfully at the side streets not taken, but happy that I had at least a few minutes to  breathe the cold night air of Vienna and feel for a moment that I was inside a film.

One thing about doing agency work for a couple of months is that it gave me plenty of commuting time to read.  I can devour a short novel in a day or two, and I usually take some poetry with me to dip in when feeling the need. I read novels by, among others,  Ali Smith, Elizabeth Stroud, Richard Ford, Lloyd Jones and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and  poetry by Fernando Pessoa, J.O. Morgan, Adélia Prado, John McCullough and Tess Jolly.

I’ve noticed several agency creatives over the last few years using Instagram and ‘late-adopter’ that I am, I now use it too, documenting lunchtime strolls around the canals of Little Venice near Paddington, London, and a couple of snaps in Vienna.

Now, feeling a bit exhausted, I’m taking stock of my own creative work. Apart from two poetry readings, and some quickly scribbled drafts of poem ideas, I have left everything untouched since October. And not having much on the horizon feels odd and dangling. I have no play in production, no new play written, my children’s novel is waiting for another agent to look at it, with one rejection so far that took over four months to receive.

But poetry, my first love, remains true and I’m always tinkering at some poem or another. I met with some fellow poets on Monday in Lewes, to talk about a forthcoming poetry anthology from Telltale and to drink some beer. This is therapy for me. Chatting with friends Robin Houghton, Sarah Barnsley, Charlotte Gann and Stephen Bone, makes me feel the obsession that has dogged me since my teens is actually a perfectly reasonable response to the world. Writers can be as backbitey and competitive as anyone else, so when you find yourself among supportive colleagues the affirmation is priceless.

I am doing a course in making stained glass windows in the new year, something I’ve always had a hankering to try, despite not being very good with my hands. A poem I wrote in the 80s, The Window Maker was printed on some National Book Tokens. Apparently an impostor went into a northern bookshop raging because Book Tokens had stolen his poem, and he was in fact the real Peter Kenny and wasn’t happy about it. I often think about doppelgängers, because my life contains quite a few incidents like this. Having a twin brother is the worst nightmare I can imagine. But I digress… I love stained glass. I love the way light passes through it. I love the leading too, and how these thick lines allow something to be  assembled from fragments into a whole that plays with gorgeous light. What’s not to love? I already have designs in my head that are on the scale of Coventry Cathedral. I might have to reign in my expectations.

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Me, before the Santa beard went on

So to end this pre-Christmas ramble, I would just like to wish you a very Merry Christmas. I love this time of year enormously. Even looking at a Christmas tree can bring a tear to my eye. Luckily I got to be Santa this year at my wife’s village school. To play a part in the unfurling of Christmas was great fun, and I am always amazed by the intelligence of children. I was plunged into ontological debates about the reality of Father Christmas with three or four nippers, (trying not to feel affronted, for did I not refute their argument just by being there in front of them?) I came out of that quite well I thought.

Cheers! Have a peaceful one.

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Poetry Travel

Yeats’s Tower and Coole Park

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So having carried Yeats’s words about in my head for 40 years, it was amazing to finally get to look at Thoor Ballylee, a one time home of the poet, and a place which had an enormously powerful symbolic presence in his mind and his poetry.

I went there with Lorraine, my wife, and our friends John and Sue Lahiff. John comes from a family firmly rooted in this area. Finally arriving was an emotional moment for me, arriving out of season, when the tower is not open to visitors, was great. We were the only people there for some of the time. And it was exactly how I had pictured it (having seen photos and so on over the years). And still unchanged from Yeats’s description of it in the second section of the long poem Meditations in a time of civil war.

An ancient bridge, and a more ancient tower,
A farm house that is sheltered by its wall,
An acre of stony ground,
Where the symbolic rose can break in flower,
Old ragged elms, old thorns innumerable,
The sound of the rain or sound
Of every wind that blows;
The stilted water-hen
Crossing stream again
Scared by the splashing of a dozen cows;
A winding stair, a chamber arched with stone,
A grey stone fireplace with an open hearth,
A candle and a written page.

Nearby was Coole Park, where Yeats’s patron Augusta Gregory lived. We had to drive past Kiltartan to get there, mentioned in An Irish Airman Foresees His Death. Coole Park is now a nature reserve, and there is a lovely walled garden, where there was a quote from Yeats suggesting their shadows were still there in the gravel, with an Autograph Tree featuring the carved signatures of Lady Gregory, Yeats, Singe, Jack B Yeats, and many others. The house itself, according to Wikipedia, was actively demolished by the state in the 1940s.

A very misguided act in my opinion. For the house was very tied up with the Irish Literary Renaissance in which Augusta Gregory was a leading figure, as a folklorist, playwright and speaker of the gaelic tongue – but also as a mentor to younger writers. Evocative to find stone stairs leading up to a lost grand house.

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Poetry Travel

Rattling locked doors

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A page with pictures of gyres, from my copy of A Vision by W.B. Yeats, still with strangely neat annotations by my 21-year-old student self.

I’m having a bit of a fanboy moment. I am off next weekend to Eire, and I hope to have a look at Thoor Ballylee where my all time poetic hero, W.B.Yeats, once lived. Although it is out of season and The Tower is not open to the public I hope at least to be able to mooch about and take some photos.

I love poetry that rattles locked doors. One thing I love about Yeats was his engagement with the esoteric and the occult. He continually thought about what was hidden, and regularly wove symbolism he had derived from his esoteric investigations into his poetry to give it an electrifying charge. One such example is the famous poem The Second Coming.

Lines in the poem, ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity’ seem particularly apposite whenever I think about politics right now. (Along with W.H. Auden’s phrase from Lullaby ‘fashionable madmen raise/Their boring pedantic cry’.)

The Second Coming has many roots, some are in Blake’s poem The Mental Traveller, others in his ideas about the cycles of history and how each cycle is the reverse of the previous one. So we are given an image of the anti-Christ, with Yeats’s theories of a repeating but inverted 2000 year cycle of history.

That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

I love the ambition here, the image is so crazily charged that it brands your memory. I love the fact that it has followed such strange pathways to become such an iconic piece of literature.

How I pored over Yeats’s A Vision, which is a book based on his young wife Georgie’s automatic writing conducted while on honeymoon. It is a system grounded on an adapted astrological model (or that was how I argued it in a dissertation once) of supernaturally inspired images and metaphors. I came out exhausted and thinking that Yeats was half charlatan, half genius. But that seemed to be his essential nature, a highly complex character with all kinds of interests.

As in architecture, an engagement with the occult is all over the place in poetry. The Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes is just one example.

Anyway I am looking forward to jetting off next weekend for a few days. I’ll be taking my collected W.B. Yeats with me, that’s for sure.

Below, a few years ago in another fanboy moment at the great poet’s grave at Drumcliffe.

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Peter Kenny The Writer Ltd. Photography Poetry Travel

Peter Caton’s Chad photos

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Some of Peter Caton’s photograph from our trip to Chad are here on the Guardian Online.

Pete’s shot of many of the people of the the village meeting under a good tree is typical of his excellent work. For the people he captures here, there is plenty to discuss: an appalling drought, extreme hunger that threatens the children. The fact that several crazy guys in a charity team had arrived and were busy flying a drone, taking photos, interviewing people and generally disrupting normal life was also quite a talking point.

Watching Peter Caton at work was fascinating. He is a man of perpetual motion, and always working.

I was very interested in how he would lean right into the faces of people he was taking, all the while smiling and engaging with his subjects. Asking him about this, he said that leaning in was actually less disconcerting for the person he was photographing that being aloof and pulling away. I’d never thought of it like that.

This publication happened at an interesting time for me, as only recently have I been able to start writing properly about what was for me an experience unlike any other I’d had. I find that there is a filtration process going on. That whatever experience I have it takes months (in this case about nine months) before I could write about it freely in the way I wanted. At last I’ve been gripped by a the sudden urge to write about Chad, and am already five poems into a sequence. Of course I hope I don’t block myself by mentioning it here…

I’m off now on holiday for a couple of weeks. Time to unwind, and of course write more poetry. To finish, here is a shot I took of Pete with a screen-lit face at night in the compound after another sweltering day. The large locust crawling in his hair just evaded photographic capture.

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Charity Film Marketing Peter Kenny The Writer Ltd. Travel Working

Filming in the centre of Chad

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The Chief of the village holds the drone camera

As an Africa newbie, a visit to Chad was in at the deep end. Chad is a landlocked country unappetisingly described by Wikipedia as the ‘dead heart of Africa’. It proved a difficult place to gain entry to. Despite having the right papers, as soon as our team of five landed we were shepherded from the airport into a hot, ramshackle office and given a grilling. Luckily our guardian angel Passiri arrived with a policewoman, and our problems began to melt away.

Our team was led by Steve whose leadership and clarity of purpose on this trip were inspiring, our photographer Pete is someone driven by a deep humanitarian instinct to move between disaster areas taking amazing photos, while Brad our filmmaker and cameraman, is a quietly spoken Canadian with an original mind and a fantastic eye. My old friend Matt Hunt and I were there to witness conditions for ourselves, contribute, help out and write stuff on the hoof. My remit was to help ensure the vision I had when writing the material was kept in mind. The team, many of us new to each other, collaborated excellently. This work was superbly enabled by the local team led by Passiri, and our two highly-diplomatic translators Tchang and Sylva.

The capital N’Djamena seemed to crackle with tension. This is due to the terrorist Boko Haram organisation, who in June set off a bomb in the main market, which killed a dozen or more. The threat from this appalling outfit feels very real. While we were far away from trouble in the heart of the country, another marketplace bomb went off near Lake Chad, not far from N’Djamena, killing 37 people.

Our journey from N’Djamena was a good ten hours by road, through a flat open country of the Sahel’s semi arid scrubland and trees, and interrupted only by armed roadblocks and goats or cattle crossing the road, or stubborn donkeys refusing to move out of the way. We glimpsed many villages of traditional mud huts with thatched roofs from our Toyotas. Here and there we could see people travelling on donkeys and camels, or at work driving cattle, carrying water and so on in the bush.

Not long out of N’Djamena we passed an enormous oil refinery. We had been told by locals that the Government signed a disadvantageous deal with Exxon Mobil, and while there was clear evidence of recent building in the capital, it is said that precious little oil revenue has trickled down to the poor.

Hour after hour we travelled deeper into the centre of Chad, until at sundown we arrived at the edge of Oum Hadjer, and a compound that was to be our base for the next six nights. Early next morning we got to work. First, protocols had to be observed: we met the secretary general, the Government’s chief representative in the area, then the mayor of Oum Hadjer, and finally we were driven to one of the local villages to be introduced to the Chief and the community.

The chief and people of the community prepare to be filmed on the last day of our shoot
The chief and people of the community prepare to be filmed on the last day of our shoot

Once these formalities were over we could start talking to ordinary people. I felt punched in the guts by the stories the women of the village told us. They had pitiful amounts to eat, one day’s food in the bottom corner of a little plastic bag. The crops were diseased and withered. The rainy season had not happened, the rainfall replaced by a heartbreaking drought. One woman showed us how they dug up ant’s nests to find grain that the ants had dragged underground. This grain stolen from insects was what one lady would feed her children with the day we spoke to her.

The children were obviously malnourished, their orange hair is a sure sign. Others had tiny bodies, one little boy had stump-like arms, deformed feet, and had only one eye and yet he smiled at us cheerily.

The overarching cause of these problems is climate change. The change in the weather means areas of the Sahel, a semi-arid scrubland between the Sahara and greener regions of Africa, are rapidly becoming desert. As the rains fail, the soil quality deteriorates. All around we can see the soil rapidly eroding into sandiness and large trees and bushes becoming islanded in a dry sea of poor soil. On one drive I asked Tchang our translator to ask the Chief who was travelling with us, what the name of the place we were driving through meant, ‘The place where crops grow’ he said. We looked out at the window at the desiccated scrubland. Little grows there now, and certainly no crops.

There are steps that can be taken to limit the spreading desert. Planting trees is one remedy to reduce the combined effects of drought and human agency, irrigation and water conservation initiatives are another. But optimism is hard to come by when you can walk on vast stretches of a sun-baked riverbed that should be deep underwater at this time of year.

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Personally I found this trip to be an endurance test. While we were there the temperature soared to 49°C, the hottest I’d ever experienced in my life (and far hotter than the 36°C it should be at this time of year). Steve and Brad came down with sunstroke and vomiting, I had diarrhoea that Steve fixed for me with antibiotics and we all were dehydrated or had too much sun at some point. But everyone, including me, just picked themselves up and carried on. Compared to the trauma we were seeing around us, our ailments were minor. We filmed and photographed everything we needed, and the use of a drone was a real boon, as the people in the village community loved it, and would laugh with delight and gather every time we flew it.

Curiously, this journey has left me thinking about God. My own faith is a simple one. I believe in God. I have personally drawn spiritual nourishment from a variety of sources including both Testaments of the Bible, but also from attending Buddhist retreats and in my reading, such as the Bhagavad Gita. Generally though I find the man-made structures and hierarchies of religions to be obstacles and distractions.

The charity I am working with is a religious one, and there was prayer woven into each day we were in the field. I had absolutely no problem with this. Not to pray in gratitude for our food when a few kilometres down a dusty track the people of an entire village are in desperate need would have been unthinkable.

Oum Hajder, the town we used as our base, is a predominantly Muslim community, a fact the call to prayer reminded us of each day. It started a couple of hours before dawn from the town’s main mosque, until other more distant voices joined in as dawn grew nearer. A memorable soundscape added to by the crowing of cockerels and other animal and insect noises bubbling up from every direction of the dry land. We attended the Church next door on Sunday, and I found it to be an explosion of sung joy and dancing. God is known by everyone in Oum Hadjer, and surely this must count for something.

After our passports had been examined on nine separate occasions in the airport at N’Djamina, and the plane soared up over Chad, I felt both relief and a responsibility not to give-in to helplessness.

I recalled standing on the edge of the fields as the team were shooting scenes that I had first imagined sitting in my office in Brighton. I had to keep pinching myself thinking that it really was me actually standing in the centre of Africa with the other guys of our team. But now I have seen this situation with my own eyes, it is something I cannot unsee.

I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to do something, to write the most compelling material I can to persuade people that this situation our team encountered is something that needs urgent attention. It seems that it’s time to step up.

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Charity Guernsey Marketing Poetry Travel

Ready for Chad and missing writing poetry

Chad

Final stage of prep seems now to be done. Passport renewed, visa obtained, jabs jabbed (although inconveniently I had a fever when I went for my yellow fever jab so I had to return a few days later) anti-malarial Malerone tablets bought, while my wife has armed me with lots of practical things like wet wipes, hand sanitisers and so on. Final thing to buy is a mosquito net, and I need to locate and deploy my inner hairy-chested man of action.

My inner h-c man of action especially required after a day of compulsory security training. Essentially the training gave you an idea of what to do in every conceivable worst case scenario, delivered by a man who has spent much of his life working in the most hostile environments, bless his white-rimmed eyes. Lots of advice from what to do if you are being robbed (simply give them everything) right up to the best position to take on the floor if someone throws a live grenade into the room. Rather melodramatically a dummy grenade was thrown into our room, prompting us to flatten ourselves on the floor, heads pointed away from the blast. Hardly soothing stuff.

Nevertheless, the script I wrote which we are filming seems to have been approved by everyone, and next week we see how reality matches our expectation. I am hoping we can edge beyond the normal tropes of DRTV and see if we can get something exceptional. Fundraising DRTV advertisements have some rigid but proven conventions so it is definitely about striking a balance between abiding by conventions and managing to surprise people.

Poetry

I’ve not had much chance to engage with poetry over the last few weeks, due being very busy in my Peter Kenny The Writer Ltd mode. This is making me itch to write poems again.

I particularly enjoyed being on the Telltale Stand for the Poetry Book Fair. More than anything I value the chance to get a snapshot of what is going on in poetry in the UK, and also to drift about chatting to some old friends and putting some names to faces. I bought books too. One simply because I liked its name: Infragreen by Kate Bingham, and another because it was connected with Guernsey: Timothy Adès translation of How to be a Grandfather, by Victor Hugo. I spoke with Timothy who had just returned from the Guernsey Literary Festival, and had bumped into Edward Chaney there. I also bought a Carcanet New Poetries IV anthology. I love these Carcanet anthologies. They invite a kind of personal statement of its poets, which is a potential minefield. Some are illuminating while others make me hoot with laughter at their portentous vacuity. All adds to the fun.

Me, Robin Houghton, Siegfried Baber, Sarah Barnsley
Me, Robin Houghton, Siegfried Baber, Sarah Barnsley

My favourite moment on the Telltale stand was when a woman looked at the four free poem postcards we were giving away. Silently she picked up one after another, read the first line or two through her magnifying glass, and replaced the card on its pile with a visible shudder. She came to Sarah Barnsley’s card last, and lo! She regally retained it before moving on. Praise indeed.

In fact Sarah Barnsley’s new pamphlet is just out from TelltaleThe Fire Station contains some truly exceptional poems.When I get back from Chad I will write more about them.

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a writer's life Marketing Poetry Travel

Preparations for Chad

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Planning now well advanced for the trip to Chad in two weeks. For me this has already meant several jabs, and the final one, yellow fever, will be done privately next week. I’ve also had to buy some lightweight, UV and mosquito-resistant clothes and urgently renew my passport.

Africa, then. I have never been there before. We will land in N’Djamena, Chad’s capital, stay overnight, before setting off the next morning. Chad is in the centre of the continent, and we are going to travel to the centre of Chad. Across the middle of Chad, and south of the Sahara, runs the central semi-arid belt called the Sahel. This belt extends three thousand miles from the Atlantic to the Red Sea and is a region that is experiencing increasing desertification. I’ve never really looked at maps of Africa with such interest before, and I find myself horribly fascinated by the size and spread of the desert.

I was pleased to learn security is to be tight, and we will be led by an in-country expert. Mobile phone coverage is good there, as Chad has skipped landlines and gone onto mobile. I like the idea of being able to phone home.

Meanwhile I’ve been refining the DRTV script which we are going to shoot. There is a strange dislocation about sitting in a home office in mild-mannered Brighton writing a treatment for filming in the heart of Chad. We may be taking a drone, which suggests we can shoot some aerial shots too. But above all the reason for the script is clear, which is to raise money for those most in need, so it’s not quite as impossible as it might seem.

Other than some work I am doing with colleagues in France on a preventing the spread of rabies throughout the Balkans by encouraging vaccination, this Chad project is edging out all other writing. The poet in me, however, is excited. I went to bed the other night wandering how bright the stars might be in what is for me a remote part of Africa and felt nervousness converting to excitement. It’s a fine line.

I’ve been thinking of Léopold Sédar Senghor, who was for a time the Senegalese President, among his other accomplishments. His gorgeous poem Night of Sine made a massive impact on me when I first read it in my early twenties. And I shall certainly be stowing his Selected Poems with me for the trip. Here is Night of Sine, beautifully rendered into English by Craig Williamson in the long out of print Rex Collings 1976 edition.

Night of Sine

Woman, lay on my forehead your hands of balsam, your hands
softer than fur.
High above, the balancing palms hardly rustle in the high
Nightwind. Not even a cradlesong.
Let it rock us, the rhythmic silence.
Listen to its song: listen to the beating of our dark blood, listen
To the beating of the dark pulse of Africa in the haze of
forgotten villages.

See how the tired moon slips to its bed of slack water,
See how the laughter drowses, how the tellers themselves
Nod their heads like babies on the backs of their mothers.
See how the feet of the dancers grow heavy and heavy
the tongues of alternate choirs.

This is the night of stars and the night that dreams
Leaning on this hill of clouds, draped in her long milk gown.
The thatch of the huts gleams gently. What does it say so
secretly to the stars?
Inside, the hearth grows dim in close, bitter and sweet smells.

Woman, light the lamp of clear oil, let the Ancestors gather
and speak like parents when the children have gone to bed.
Listen to the voice of the Ancients of Elissa. Like us, exiled,
They feared to die, to lose their seminal flood in the sand.
Let me listen, in the smoking hut, to the murmur of favorable
souls come down;

My head on your breast like a couscous ball smoking from fire,
Let me breathe the smell of our Dead, let me gather and tell
their life-voice, let me learn
To live before going down, deeper than the diver, into tall
fathoms of sleep.

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Marketing Poetry Travel

Chad, Telltale Press and some poetry acceptances

I am off to Chad. In less than a month I shall be going to what is, according to the United Nations human development report 2011 is the fifth poorest nation on earth. I will be part of a small team to fact-find and shoot film for fundraising activities. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit twitchy about the idea at first (Chad being roughly three thousand miles outside my comfort zone) but this rare opportunity to do something good in the world has to be seized. My trepidation is rapidly being replaced by curiosity and excitement at the opportunity to grow as a writer and a person.

Telltale Press news… The Poetry Book Fair is happening on Saturday 26th in The Conway Hall London. I’m really proud to be on the Telltale stand (it’ll be our first time and we are sharing a stand with the lovely folks at The Frogmore Press) with Robin Houghton, Siegfried Baber and Sarah Barnsley.

Sarah’s spanking new Telltale pamphlet, The Fire Station, is about to released into the wild, and having read it I can tell you it is wonderful.

My own poems have had a couple of cheering acceptances lately. From Under the Radar magazine another with The Island Review which is a beautiful site visually and in content. While the excellent poetry anthology edited by Josephine Corcoran called And Other Poems will also feature a poem later this year. No doubt I shall be bragging about these more when they see the light of day.

Chad

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Prose Travel

Bram Stoker and the Genius Loci of Whitby Abbey

As a teenager I went through a Clark Ashton Smith phase. Smith wrote fantasy horror stories like his friend H.P. Lovecraft and employed an ornate vocabulary. Being foxed by his vocabulary  forced me to learn the meaning of words such as ‘atavistic’ and ‘gibbous’. One of his collections was called Genius Loci and other tales. I had to look up Genius Loci too, and found the idea of a spirit of a place established itself in my head. It gave the name to spooked feeling I regularly used to experience in my grandmother’s 16th century granite cottage in Guernsey.

I’m just back from a family break in Whitby on the North Yorkshire coast, in preparation I’d been rereading Dracula by Bram Stoker. Stoker stayed in Whitby in 1890, and enjoyed the ruined Abbey and set some of the action of his famous novel there. Count Dracula, in the form of a werewolfish black dog, leaps ashore from a wrecked Russian ship, Demeter, to wreak chaos in the town. Visiting Whitby Abbey, it’s easy to see how the genius loci of the place might touch an author planning a horror classic. I loved Whitby. It’s well worth a visit.

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Greece Poetry Travel

The treasures of Greek poetry

Just back from a couple of weeks in Thassos, the northernmost Greek island of the Aegean, and Kavala on the mainland. While Lorraine and I did lots of site-seeing, notably at the site of Phillipi a short drive from Kavala, and also, rather bravely, going on a jeep safari to the top of Mount Ipsarion on the green and lovely island of Thassos, we did a fair bit of lounging about too. Much of what I go to Greece for is to sink into the timelessness of olive groves, glassy seas, mountains, pine forest and fingers of cypress trees pointing up into the blue. One of the things that makes my holiday, however, is sampling the more recent treasures of its poetry.

My love affair with Greece, which I have visited well over a dozen times, started with the book My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. As a boy I re-read it and sequels such as Birds Beasts and Relatives several times. Gerald Durrell wrote about Corfu (Kérkyra) in a humorously idealised way that felt safe, funny and, for a boy that was interested in natural history, was fascinating for all the right reasons. I had read versions of the Greek Myths and children’s versions of the Illiad and Odyssey too, but these didn’t seem to connect with Durrell’s world. Later I graduated onto the work of his older brother Lawrence Durrell, whose travel writing is extraordinary and I loved his sequence of novels The Alexandria Quartet. Currently out of fashion, I remember The Quartet as being unlike anything I had read before or since.

In my twenties I began to read Greek poets in translation, starting with C.P. Cavafy, who appeared as a figure haunting the Alexandria of Lawrence Durrell. I followed it with reading George Sepheris (who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1963) and who was in the characteristic dialogue of a modern Greek writer with Classical Greece. Then an Anthology of Modern Greek Poetry translated by Kimon Friar published by the Efstathiadis Group I purchased on my first visit to Greece in 1992, introduced me to dozens of fabulous poets. This collection opened a door to the soul of Greece just as easily as I could hear the cicada from the comfort of my sun-lounger. Recently I have been reading lots of the poet Odysseus Elytis, (Nobel Prize 1979) who I fiercely admire. Greek poetry often speaks more viscerally to me in a way that English poetry of the same period does not. Perhaps it is because of the inevitable focus on islands it contains, and my connection with the channel islands means I tune into this.

And although I was reading Elytis again this trip, it was the new translation of The Collected Poems of C.P. Cavafy, with a parallel Greek text by Evangelos Sachperoglou published by Oxford World’s Classics that snared me all over again, and I find it the best translation of Cavafy I have read. I find three broad streams in Cavafy’s work. Those poems when he returns to what are to this reader at least fairly obscure historical events; his sensuous, erotically charged love poems, drenched in the poignancy of remembering lost youth and abandon. Then there are the times when he makes concrete an emotion with disarming directness.  An early poem called Candles, for example, uses the image of a line of candles to express anxiety about the passage of time.  Or this poem Walls. I was discussing this with Eleni, a Greek friend and singer based in Kavala, she read it again and said: “but this is what is happening to us now!” For her, the current economic travails of Greece were reflected in this poem written before 1910. It’s worth quoting in full:

WALLS

Without consideration, without pity, without shame,
they built around me great and towering walls.

And now I am sitting and despairing here.
I think of nothing else: this fate is gnawing at my mind;

for I had many things to do out there.
When they were building the walls, how could I not be aware?

Yet never did I hear clatter of builders, or any sound.
Imperceptibly, they shut me off from the world outside.

Two men