Archives

Rivers

I’ve just been swimming in a chemically-treated, lightly-perfumed, over-lit indoor pool in Oviedo, Asturias, Spain. I loved it. On my way to the pool I pass this fountain.

Oviedo fountain fireworks – waterworks doesn’t quite describe the uplift and spray, does it?

It’s the centre piece of a roundabout which illustrates the cycle of water showering through it every minute. Round and round we go. Up and down, through the pipes, over and over again. Humans have used water, in more or less elaborate ways, to enhance our lives as long as we’ve been drinking liquid to survive. You do know you’re soaking in it? In my time in Spain I’ve seen fountains in plazas, roundabouts and parks. I’ve also seen viaducts.

Segovia viaduct built with no mortar

As I’ve said before, imagine having to work in a frock and sandals to make this big old drain run from mountain to castle for your Roman leaders.

There’s plenty of sculptures too, like this one in the city of Valencia, remembering the river that used to run through it.

Valencia remembers their river with a colossus striding over water

One of the most amazing things about Valencia is that for the last thousand years a group of Spanish farmers, or their representatives, meet, every week, on the steps of the Valencia Cathedral; the tribunal de las aguas. They’re there to debate water; who gets how much, when. You can see them on a Thursday. They don’t keep records and their decisions are final.

Tour guide in Valencia explains the democratic nature of water decisions on the steps of the Cathedral

Compare that to negotiations around the Murray Darling basin in Australia. Irrigation is the largest user of water from the Murray/Darling rivers. Admittedly white farmers haven’t been there for a thousand years yet but they are certainly having trouble working out equitable ways to share the water and keep a healthy river. Couple of Aussie blokes made a tv series about it, if you’re inclined to view a cruise down a river?

The farmers downstream in South Australia do not stand a chance against the farmers upstream in New South Wales and Victoria. There are regular scandals on the border of Queensland and NSW.

Cubbie Station, a Japanese and Chinese owned cotton empire, has a dam described as the same size as Sydney Harbour. Down the other end of the river in SA, Goolwa’s water sometimes slows to a trickle. There’s no regular meeting to solve this ongoing crisis. Just earnest attempts, bitter blaming and ecological desperation.

Back in Spain, Valencia went so far as to move their river away from the city.

Old Valencia river bed is now a running track

Now a lovely park featuring running tracks, modern architecture and playgrounds, the river bed flooded too often and the civic powers showed the flow who was boss and shoved it out the back somewhere.

Valencia tamed their river beds and turned their minds to the future

The same thing happened in Seville. The Gualdaquiver, once a bustling shipping artery, was split to control potential flooding.

Seville’s quiet backwaters

I suppose in Spain climate change may be working for humans because there’s been less rain than normal for many years.

El Torre de Oro – The Tower of Gold – built in the 13th Century – across the river Gualdaquiver

 

The public face of the river in Seville

On the other side of the Iberian Peninsula, I lived last year on the border of two provinces, Barcelona and Girona, in Catalunya. The border was a river, La Tordera.

Standing on the bridge looking out to the sea and the railway bridge on one side and up to the township of Tordera on the other

In the summer La Tordera dried up. You could walk across it. In the winter it was a full, flowing river. I used to take a photo every time I walked home. There’s no sound track on the following slide show. Do you want to listen to Al Green while you check out the pretty Spanish river?

<iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/KEasxe8hDs4″ frameborder=”0″ allow=”autoplay; encrypted-media” allowfullscreen>iframe>

 

In the beginning of my little compilation, you can see the mouth of the river at Blanes beach. In the summer, the mouth is closed. As the waters build up through the cooler months, they breach the sand. Water will find a way.

With my back to Blanes beach, here’s the mouth of La Tordera in cooler days.

Also, the nearby city of Girona features a river bed dry and bare in the summer. The winter rains and their outpourings created marvellous reflections for tourist photos.

Girona quiet waters in autumn – not a marvellous tourist photo

This year I work in the Valle de Nalón in Asturias. When I arrived, El Rio Nalón was a mere trickle.

Tiny little Nalón in autumn

Nalón in the Winter

Now spring is here and the snows are melting in the nearby mountains.

Nalón in spring

Churning white waters fleck the brown flood that chunders down the river bed.

Rivers come and go as seen in two stories in the Guardian today. When Nature’s had enough https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/apr/01/argentina-new-river-soya-beans and farmers have taken all the deep-rooted trees away from the water table, is it surprising that nature will take her own course?

But more achingly important is this story about giving nature a right to exist; https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/apr/01/its-only-natural-the-push-to-give-rivers-mountains-and-forests-legal-rights

The idea of giving a river legal personhood is pleasantly close to finding Naiad or a River God swimming along the Yarra, or the Thames or the Seine. But remember, “No river, no people, no life.”

They know that in Cape Town, they know it in Los Angeles. Around the world it’s estimated 1.1 billion people don’t have access to clean water.

I don’t have to tell you, do I, that we’re all part of nature!

There’s a lot of charities about clean water; the tap project, charity; water, lifewater, water.com

The Source of the river Aube, one of the tributaries of the Seine, in the Haute-Marne region of France

When I stayed near Auberive, Champagne-Ardenne, France, I was fortunate to visit the Source of the river Aube, set in mysterious forest and retaining an atmosphere of magic. For about twenty metres around this area, the ground is wet and the steady seepage from below begins a flow that ends up joining the Seine. Here was a place it was easy to imagine a Naiad living.

Would we be more interested in protecting water if we returned to the days of worshipping? Would that be enough for us to form a human shield against the likes of Nestlé and Coca Cola? Remembering corporations already carry their own personhood, like Deities!

Meanwhile, in New Zealand, hydro-electricity is looking a lot greener these days. And rivers are so beautiful that Don McGlashan wrote a song about them. Made famous by singer Hollie Smith, here’s a version featuring the composer, a casual rehearsal to swim in.

<iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/1vBcU7OOGqs” frameborder=”0″ allow=”autoplay; encrypted-media” allowfullscreen></iframe>

Thanks for getting into this river of thought. What, and where, are your favourite rivers? Have you been involved in any water charities? Let me know in the comments section below!

Searching for Mervyn Peake in Sark

Arrrr, those pesky pirates! You know the sort; nasty, violent, GREEDY? Take what they want, arrrr, and care not one whit for the contentment of the many, nor even of the few wealthy owners, nor even for that super royal family to whom tax is most certainly due.

Peake pirate from https://i.pinimg.com/originals/ce/f1/86/cef186f038796cc4d647be6035063f1f.jpg

Queen Elizabeth I (arrrr) knew all about pirates and she didn’t like them. She’d seen too many ships disappear, together with her income, and she wanted the pestilence fixed. Looking toward the Continent, she could tell Jersey and Guernsey were populated and policed enough, but Sark, a teeny island, a craggy outcrop of rock, drilled through by the sea until it resembled Swiss cheese, was trouble. Sark, even now holding the honour of the most caves of the Channel Islands, was riddled with pirates.

Peake’s first published work was Captain Slaughterboard, written and illustrated by Mervyn himself

Queen Liz wanted Sark cleaned up. She gave the entire island of 4.5 square miles (Sark 2017 Official Map) to a Lord, The Seigneur, and charged him with protecting her waters and getting rid of the blasted bandits.

The Seigneur, in his turn, allowed thirty-nine of his closest armed friends to rent a cheap piece of Sark so long as they kept guard. All they had to do was keep it free of pirates and enjoy the sort of dreamy rural existence made romantic by HE Bates. It can’t have been easy, I’m sure. The early settlers might even have had trouble finding topsoil on that windy place. But they soon found enough to grow sheep, vegetables and send their children off to fee-paying English schools and eat delicious French food. They invented lazy summer holidays and horse-drawn tourist peace and all was well.

After a few hundred years came World Wars and German invasion. This was difficult but eventually the locals overcame the barbed wire and life went on in the same idyllic manner. But, what if, after 450 years of dutiful protection, the locals became complacent? What if they forgot their obligations to the crown and their duty to protect Sark? What if modern pirates began circling the island in their helicopters with their fancy new technologies? What would happen if the Sarkese didn’t realise they were under attack until it was too late?

Peake apparently knew Treasure Island by heart http://fantasy.glasgow.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/ea29c77f532850e2945dc298b35da651.jpg

I was awarded the Titus Groan trilogy for debating at a small girls’ school in Dunedin, New Zealand. Even when staring at the pencil illustrations on the covers, I knew I’d been handed the key to another world.

http://mervynpeake.blogspot.com.es/2011/05/illustrated-gormenghast-anticipation.html

The Gormenghast books were satire, adventure and a description of enclosed society. Mervyn Peake, artist and writer (as much as those two roles can be separate in his life) conceived and wrote much of the trilogy when Peake and his family lived on Sark. Much has been written about his childhood in China and how that experience might have contributed to the strangeness of his creation, but having visited Sark, I think that’s where he found the core of Gormenghast.

The Peakes moved to Sark in 1946 and lived an arcadian lifestyle for three years as he planned the series. As a single man he had lived on Sark for four years before the war, in an artist’s colony. He was an eccentric fellow with a pet cormorant and a penchant for nudism. He became an art teacher and a war artist later. 

https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw07779/Mervyn-Laurence-Peake

Seventy years on, I went to Sark in search of Peake, hoping to find evidence of his inspiration. He was the first world builder I’d ever encountered, in words or pictures.

“My voice has all the lushness
of what I can’t abide

And yet it has a beauty
most proud and terrible
denied to those whose duty
is to be cerebral.”

To me, Peake was more than a friend. He was a soulmate.

Waiting to buy tickets for the ferry at Granville

To get to Sark, one must travel by sea. Port de Granville of France was not colourful. The buildings were grey, beige or cream or a clotted mix and the sea was slate grey. The sky was filled with ashen clouds. The boats were once white with an odd faded blue for contrast. As I waited for the ferry I watched the floating world go by. As the ferry prepared to leave, I watched two men and a clump of fishing rods bump out of the protection of stone walls in a surprising bright yellow inflatable.

This is not the ferry. A fellow traveller.

It’s difficult to imagine how those old sea walls could possibly have been built without the aid of cranes and heavy engineering equipment. I suppose each wall, built on the remains of the previous, becomes stronger over the ages, like nearby Mont Saint-Michel, a dramatic medieval castle-cathedral, which may also have influenced Peake.

Mont St Michel

Au revoir La France! A bientôt!

From Granville we sailed to Jersey, part of the United Kingdom. “In Transit” whilst at Jersey meant walking off the boat, waiting for customs to look at the passport, getting a new boarding pass, walking to the waiting room and, without sitting down, getting in the queue to return with treble the amount of people wanting to visit Sark. In less than an hour we were on our way again, past a proud fort crouched on the Jersey coast fringed with cranes poised this way and that. Jersey, as far as I could tell, was an island plagued with developers.

Jersey fort

On board the ferry, I stood on deck, leaning into a bend in the rail, loving the rise and fall, the spray from the ploughed waves stinging my face. The wind was icey but there was warm sun on my back and soon enough we neared Sark waters. Rocky waters. Great dark craggy outcrops jagged from the white water all around the cliffs. A black tidal mark or plimsoll line bruised the rocks just above the water where the waves have engraved a thinner waist for the island.

Black lichen high water mark around Sark

Extraordinary harbour walls featured steep steps up to a road, which wound through a tunnel in the cliff. I found it difficult to imagine the grasping hands and burning backs, tearing muscles and broken legs; the vision and the technology that had to be utilised to build these sea walls.

Maseline is the main harbour of Sark, where the ferry and the mail boat visit – and not every day. The weather conditions are extreme. The sailors must be very skilled indeed to negotiate their paying customers up and down the steep steps to the ferry.

I puzzled, how could those early tenants have tamed the fierce thundering waters long enough to build towering stone walls right into it?

Welcome to Sark

There, through that proscenium cliff archway, was a walk up the hill. You could catch a tractor ride if you preferred but I chose the lovely green twisty path, and on, straight up the dusty thin carless road to the Sark Visitor’s Centre.

Leading us up the Sark garden path

My first impression of Sark town centre was ‘English Country Garden’. It was all very picturesque and human scale, apart from the giant vibrant begonias in all the bridesmaid colours of the world. I had no idea they could grow that big!

Over-sized begonias in the Sark garden experience

Sark seemed almost too good to be true.

The information officer told me that not many people come to Sark to seek Peake. What? REALLY?! The only reason I came was Peake. What else could there possibly be?

On the way up the main road it was difficult to ignore the amount of shops for rent and closed businesses. One entire side of the street was empty. Shut. This was peak tourist season – the middle of summer – August. The information woman told me crossly it was because of the cost of electricity. Far too high. (And not one solar panel in sight.)

I trooped off to La Vallete Campsite (a couple of paddocks on the cliff edge of a farm) where I put up my borrowed tent. When I fronted at the campsite ‘office’, more a mud-room entry space really, Linda said she found all her emails blurred into one – which camper was I? What did I want? Exactly? Just a place to lay my weary head.

Incredibly grateful that Roseann, Olivier and Mike lent me their tent!

I was unused to camping, unprepared and unskilled. I chose a site close to the edge of the cliff, though fenced in on two sides with blackberries. It appeared someone had desecrated the corner with some toilet paper streamers. They had been rained on. I tucked them back into the blackberry bush with the tent-peg mallet, of which there were several on offer. I put the small end of the tent into the prevailing wind but who knew where the wind would blow next?

There were a few puffy clouds looking thoughtful and attractive about this intense blue sky while the sun beat down meaningfully. Several charming yachts were drifting below, parked in La Grève de la Ville like a school of tethered white and blue tuna.

What sort of pirates sail the high seas?

What to do next? Obviously I had to go to the Vicar’s Fête, one of the Sark calendar highlights. Apparently the Peake family had lived nearby in a housed called Le Chalet. While I struggled to decide what book to buy at the bookstall (couldn’t) the auction began. I assumed the auctioneer was none other than the vicar himself and he proceeded to give a progress report of the Fair. There was a loud cry of despair from two women next to me when they heard there were no cakes left. A chap muttered to the bookseller, ‘Well, I’m not surprised. There weren’t many to start with.’ Suddenly I looked left and right. Was I in an episode of Midsummer Murders? The all white and cashmere Vicarage workers were certainly over fifty years old (many harking back fondly to their seventieth birthday). A small gang of vaguely Gothic teens/early twenties lounged on the grass to prove the exception.

The Bank. Summer outfit.

As I left the Fête, I noted a few summer visitors – I suspect you wouldn’t get called tourists – harrying their children around on bicycles. Because there’s no cars and you can easily hear a tractor on the way, or one of the horse-drawn carts, children hoon about freely.

Up by the path to the lighthouse (now an Airbnb with no public access) I found a well-placed bench overlooking the yachts to my left and several rugged rock islets scattered over the waters to my right. The waves were rustling below, tickling the shore. I could hear seagulls crying out somewhere and behind me in the bush grasshoppers (or crickets) sang a high-pitch bed of noise.

With lighthouse to the right and La Grève de la Ville to the right, my dinner bench was a peaceful spot

As I ate my dinner I watched currents moving under the water. The current coming around to the right (towards Maseline Harbour) was smooth, in contrast to choppy scuff marks sweeping the current along. It was as though someone had come through with a big wooden spoon and made a curvy pattern across my sea view. A speedboat ripped across the water. Dark navy depths rejoined as the white zipline faded away. The water then had a nap, brushed wrong way in a pleasing curve around me and smoothed further out like a rainbow arc but all tones of navy stripes. Then came a flotilla of small jet boats – possibly fisher folk returning for their dinner? Possibly cocaine smugglers for cocktail hour?

Les Fontaines where there are definitely smugglers caves just out of frame

The next morning I skittered down steep stairs to La Fontaine Bay, a sheltered and rocky smuggler’s cove where the sun blasted down. A seagull in the distance tangled with a plane far too high, altogether there were far too many planes roaring overhead. There were two great caves on the opposite side of the bay. I thought the tide was out because the seaweed was still fresh wet on the rocks. I thought of Peake, and Titus, as he might have walked these rocks and pathways, and how the woman in the tourist information office said, ‘Well, he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, is he.’

A local grandfather made the Epeguerie rock pool many years ago. It’s leaking now. And, look, there’s George’s boat taking a load of tourists around the island!

I spent a good part of the day in my togs staring in a rockpool instead. The rock pools were heaving with little fish. When I assumed the gazing position, rubbernecking into the shallow twinkles, two fish came to look at me as if they were watching telly. They watched me watching them. Another swam through. Quickly. Then another. One of the watchers changed position, coming a little closer. They all kept a steady eye on me.  A darker one took shelter on an outcrop, just under the surface. As a fragile cluster of guppy things swam by, the dark one up above slapped the water somehow, making a surprising snappy clapping. I took up various positions around this Grandpa-made pool, leaking slightly now, but still absorbing viewing.

I marched up to the nose of the island, Bec du Nez, where seagulls sit like complacent white crowns on royal lumps of rock, their soft feathers littering the sheep-gnawed grass around them. It’s called the common and the guide suggests counting butterflies. Too many flutter by and I take it the counting is a joke. Mostly quiet brown creatures, perhaps with a spot or a bit of pale and some colourful ones too with flashes of orange and yellow. I mainly walked around the Eperquerie area, eating far too many blackberries. I wanted to get to the historical society in time to enquire about the ruins up there and ask what that black stain is. I took a bit more of a stroll to examine the Buddist carving on a rock. Not sure why it’s there. And then a snooze in the sun.

Perhaps the Buddhist carving is simply for us to ponder while relaxing in the sun or, maybe, it is to protect the island from evil.

When I eventually regained enough strength to eat more blackberries I got back on track and hit town too late for the historic society. Turned off by the Sunflower Café but admired the Sunflower Project, a two acre field donated by the farmer to grow sunflowers and other plants for birds and insects. Very happy to see Shenanigans Café open where a friendly young lady from Cardiff lent me her charger, made me a coffee, and a cherry jam sandwich. They even employed a solar panel or two. All well with the world.

Although impressed by the ancient windmill, I was saddened the bakery was no longer used. In fact, there’s no bakery open at all on the island. Here’s an opportunity for someone to run the place the way it used to be. Or stick up a new windmill to get things cooking. (Could they afford the thousand-pound-a-week plus rent the owners are asking for the bakery on the main road?)

The windmill’s wings are clipped (off)

The next day I woke to the tent flapping briskly in the wind. I had a dream in which I was picked up (while still in the tent) and moved to a hall. In my dream hall, many people were sleeping next to each other. I woke up (in the dream) to find myself between two bickering young men. One stretched out, over me, to annoy the other and I slapped his arm lightly. He was upset but I didn’t care. A young doctor came to look at my prone self. She looked worried. They hadn’t been able to wake me previously. I reassured her that I was in fine fettle. I must have fallen into such a deep sleep because I’d been awake after I thought I’d lost my wallet.

This last bit was true. I wanted to see the famous Dark Sky so when I woke I jumped at the chance to wander over to the toilet block. But I didn’t need a torch. The sky was bright. There was a full glorious moon. As I watched she pulled an elegant cloud-veil across her face. I dreamily went to watch the lighthouse flashing around the bay. This was the sign-posted lighthouse, now closed to the public, certainly a working warning light so that was reassuring. No big boats about to crash into the cliff. When I arrived back to the tent I discovered my wallet missing. Panic. Flashed the torch everywhere it might have been. Raced back to the loo and the lighthouse viewpoint. Started planning survival strategies. Got back to tent, tried to avoid dew soaked tent flap, began sorting and found wallet straightaway. Thank goodness. Asleep immediately to dream the wind picked me up. But it didn’t.

It was all just the wind in the tent. 

La Coupée is a very thin and wind vulnerable connection between Sark and Little Sark. Note the droppings left by the most popular form of tourist transport.

The next day I walked over the steep, curving La Coupée, a road built and fenced by prisoners of war, to Little Sark. Believing strongly in discretion above valour, I decided not to climb down to the Venus Pool alone. Looked arduous and I still had time to return to the historical society. If no one hears you scream did you actually fall to your death off a rocky cliff?

At the peak, I lounged on a soft patch of vivid green with tiny stalks bearing little cups of crispy white petals. Sark. Blackberries, sweet as desire. Butterflies, light and mobile as an already forgotten thought.

Sun bore down in full force, sea birds wheeled around and overhead. Many spattered brown birds – herring gulls? No wonder Peake thought of angels when he came to write Mr Pye, his book actually set on Sark. The jagged landscape is covered in fluffy white feathers.

I was so KEEN. Arrived at the historical society office 12:25 with plenty of time before they shut. Popped in to the loo, no potable water there and came to stand in line at the Heritage Room. Or rather, I waited in the corridor. A man held forth to a small elderly lady. She did not see me but I sort of bowed to the gentleman to indicate that I intended to move into the room, was that allowed? He met my gracious greeting with a blank stare I took to be assent so I moved into the space. Glass cabinets and folders of information about Sark surrounded me. I looked up the meadow pippet in birds of Sark, as the meadow pippet is my favourite bird. I think I may have seen a rock pippet near the old mines. I could find, as I slowly perambulated around the room, precisely nothing about Mervyn Peake. Nothing about pirates or the dark plimsoll line.

Meanwhile, the man held forth about the crimes of the British education system. He used to be a headteacher. He despaired at the constant measuring to which children are subjected in the current British system. As does his wife, a sixty percenter, but working full-time. As it turned out, you wouldn’t believe it, he, Richard, came from Wollstonecraft (or somewhere), which is EXACTLY where the thin, elderly lady’s brother and sister-in-law reside. Extraordinary coincidence. After that they spoke about the exhibits in front of them, neolithic axe heads and other items of geological interest. I believe he may now be a geologist of some sort. They were getting on splendidly and I’d perused the flowers of Sark and the rocks of Sark and the moths of Sark and the interesting beads, possibly made from Baltic amber found around Sark, when I realised these two had just begun to warm up. I took my departure (unnoticed) and headed to the Post Office where I intended to buy and post postcards.  And there, at last, in The Gallery Stores and Post Office, I found Mervyn Peake and his creations.

After dealing with postcards I went back to request the nearest potable water tap at tourist information. While I waited I looked through a beautiful coffee table book, ‘Art for the Love of Sark’. This is the record of an inspirational visit to Sark by twenty artists from Artists For Nature (http://www.artistsfornature.com/projects/sark/) It is a remarkable venture and I urge you to peruse the website and buy the book, if you can. One of the artist members, Rosie Guille, runs a delightful little gallery on the main street of Sark where you can pick up the book, perhaps one of her own evocative paintings or practice the art yourself. Here is her online gallery: https://rosanneguilleart.com/

 

http://www.sark.co.uk/958-958/

Back in the Sark Visitor Centre, the kind officer offered me the still warm water from her kettle. She preferred to boil the bore water. They have a good water table. Don’t need to go down too far. I remarked upon the lack of visible water tanks and that bore water is, of course, finite. She felt not. A good water table is a water table for good. I continued in my strident, visitor knows best sort of way, surely that’s the problem in California? She said, ‘Sark gets more rain than California.’ I said, ‘Isn’t that a good reason for water tanks?’

Didn’t seem like a smooth conversation did it, so I bought up Mervyn again. I wouldn’t let him go, I just couldn’t, and I said what a shame it was there was no shrine to this great writer. She said, ‘There’s a lot of artists that came from Sark. They couldn’t possibly commemorate them all.’

I said, ‘Like who?’ She said, ‘Cheeseplate and Topless’, people I hadn’t heard of so I added, ‘Oh yeah,’ I muttered dismissively, ‘And let’s not forget Victor Hugo!’ 

One of the closed hotels features a bar honouring Victor Hugo

Wasn’t it amazing that Victor Hugo had only been on the island for two weeks and he had a cave and a bar named after him while Peake had lived here for seven years? ‘Oh, she said, ‘Hugo was here longer than that.’ I said, ‘Not according to the pamphlet over there … ‘ And she looked askance at me.

Well, they hedge their bets, don’t they …

In order to lighten the atmosphere I added that I had started to see Gormenghast as a satire about Sark itself, what with all that inherited fifedom, and the enclosed nature of the island. She hadn’t read it but agreed that although many people had wanted democracy in 2008, many had wanted the island to stay the way it was. Is that so? To swing it all back to Mr Peake and his glory, I said it was a shame there was nothing available in the tourist information shop about him and she said, ‘Perhaps there’s nothing of his available to sell?’ And I said, ‘Well, there is in the Post Office!’

After a desperate pause in which we both wanted to be polite, she said, ‘Did you know he used to live there?’ And I said, ‘No, really?’ (Which was a lie because I did know by then) and she said, ‘Before it was the Post Office, of course. They had some pictures up once, showing him painting there.’ After making all the correct admiring sounds I said, ‘I had heard when he first lived here, when he was freezing in a barn, he worked in the fields to get money and had a pet cormorant.’ She looked askance again, ‘Well, you know better than I do, for sure.’

So I said that she was lucky to have the books to look forward to, that they were wonderful and thanks for the water. I could have reminded her that the books were all available in the PO but you know, I’m proud of myself. I knew when to stop.

There was the dead bakery on the main road. CLOSED. Another shop on the main street, CLOSED. Then, on the way to Dixcart Bay, a great swimming bay, I passed a large fancy hotel. CLOSED. What was going on? Time for some research.

Sark, straight ahead?

The price of electricity has little to do with the price of politics in Sark. Turns out Sark does have a darker side. Sark really is too good to be true.

Of course, there had to be a downside to such a pretty theme park. Under all those pots of petunias, pretty tree-lined laneways and those quaint seventeenth century stone buildings lies a squawling ten-year-old democracy, fighting a 450 year-old-fifedom. Or is it?

Shady laneway in Sark – around the bend?

The democracy was apparently born of twin media barons, David and Frederick Barclay, trying to buy their way into tax-free law-making power. Come on. Did Mervyn Peake write that stuff? (NB: There were twins in the drama of Gormenghast but they were victims. Cora and Clarice were killed by Steerpike, a young man thirsting for power.)

Peake certainly loved pirates as described by Rob Maslen in a fine blog post but I don’t think Mervyn would much care for these boys. The Barclay Brothers have caused a sort of disease, a kind of cancer, in the form of untended grapevines, empty hotels and falling down buildings holding up the land.

Vines in apparent summer disrepair

I really felt at home in Sark but what a beastly thing this duo of billionaires have done. They’ve bought a good percentage of the ancient tenements but have not yet managed to sway the democratic elections enough to get their chosen people in power to make the legal changes they require. They want to make their bit of the island a separate tax haven. They normally live in Monaco but they’ve built a showy castle on a their private mini-island called Brecqhou.

They’ve installed a helipad and roads and landed cars – against the rules, nay ethos, of Sark. They own all the empty shops and most of the main island’s hotels; those now standing empty. So there’s no work in those CLOSED hotels and no paying visitors. Which means the population of the island was half its normal summer number last year.

You can watch a Panorama episode available on You Tube that explains how these two media moguls have been trying to play monopoly and throw the board over when things aren’t going the way they like. (I’ve seen my sister do it. Definitely a thing.) 

The next morning was cloudy. I eyed the tumbling impending rain clouds suspiciously as I rushed to finish my breakfast before it came down again. I managed to bring everything over to the shed where there was a sort of veranda. I stretched the tent out over the ground and sipped my coffee while weak shards of sun stroked the damp nylon into submission.

Once I figured everything would not rot away if rolled up, I packed and left the stuff ready for the appointed pick up. I managed to walk the delightful garden dell path to the harbour five times that day. Once, when the friendly bank ladies thought George wouldn’t go out in this weather and I imagined I’d better take a look at this enclosed bay, Creux Harbour, to see how small and cute it really was, and how the water smashed up through the stairway.

While waiting for the Non Pareil to arrive I strolled around the picturesque Creux Harbour

I strode back up to find a phone which just ate my money and refused to connect with anyone. Luckily I ran into Rosie rather than have to face the Information Officers again. She put in a call to George for me and we were in business. Back down the windy path I went. On the way past, I couldn’t help myself, I popped into the smart corporate looking real estate company office. The smartly-attired business woman at the desk agreed there were a lot of closed shops on the main road and, yes, it was a shame.

I mentioned I came from Australia and there was an interesting phenomenon, started in Newcastle a few years back, called ‘Renew‘. The idea was that local officials would make empty, run-down shops or premises available to artists and small desktop computer type start-up businesses for peppercorn rents in order to bring life back into blighted areas. There was quite a lot available on the internet about it, I pressed on, Renew had been a great success. She agreed wholeheartedly, making no move to search her computer. She pretended to take a note in her diary and promised faithfully the Chamber of Commerce would be discussing it at the very next meeting.

I marched back down again and found the eighty-year old George and his son, Morgan, waiting in a jolly little boat, the Non Pareil. They took us from hightide Creux harbour, round the island with the most caves in the channel (Sark, remember?) and back to a low tide harbour. Here could be a clue for a renewable energy source – tidal power must surely be an option on Sark. Watch Morgan move the Non Pareil quick smart out of there!

George had met Mervyn Peake. He reported he was a very nice man. And George’d been in the tv series, Mr Pye, too. In fact nearly everyone on Sark had been involved!

Low tide at Creux Harbour reveals how those harbour walls might have been built!

When we went past the castle, George spoke unenthusiastically about the lack of community spirit of the Barclay boys.

George and his son Morgan take the tourists around Sark in all the weathers

These modern pirates, the Baron Boys – Barclaydum and Barclaydee – came in helicopters, spread fake news that makes German propaganda look like nursery rhymes and when they didn’t like the way their game of Monopoly was heading, they threw the board over so no one could finish the game. They made several families, true descendants of that first Seigneur, the friend of Elizabeth I, walk the financial plank. They bought up houses, hotels and disgraced the local Doctor Kindness himself.

The sad thing is that this isn’t a draft of the fourth (or fifth) Gormenghast book. This is life on Sark today. Unless the Royals, who happen against all reason, to be good buddies with the Barclay Media Barons – those very same Media Barons relishing once-private information about royals, celebrities and other saucy scandals – unless Prince Charles – whose architect pal built the pseudo castle on BB island with, I kid you not, real canons balanced on ramparts artlessly covered in Spanish stone, unless the Crown can come to Sark’s rescue somehow, it’s difficult to see how this stalemate will end. The Pirate Twins themselves are now old men kept alive by the wonders of modern medicine. What of their heirs? What will become of Sark in the long run?

If the parliament or the Lord (Seigneur) could somehow regain control of the tenements belonging to the main island, I wondered if it might be possible to let the Barclay Barons have Brecqhou Island on a long-term lease? Surely they did not sell the land freehold? If the community could retrieve the hotels and shops on the mainland, they could get their own economy functioning once more.

Sark’s situation put me in mind of another David and Goliath story, that of Cuba. There was a thrown monopoly board if ever there was one. In my humble opinion Sark urgently needs to bring in permaculture experts, as they did there (Power of Community: How Cuba survived peak oil) particularly those knowledgeable about burning rubbish and making renewable energy. The stench of foul smoke overhanging the harbour is awful. Sark clearly has wind potential, and the tidal variation is powerful. Sark could surely become self-sufficient in energy one day.

Is it possible the Barclay Twins, their heirs and the Royals could join the community to build such a forward-looking and clean energy exemplar for Great Britian?

My dream? Where I was picked up by the wind? Have I been asleep all this time? Like the residents of Sark?

 

You’ve got to be awake to be vigilant

Roman Road

Roman Road in Spain. Personally I think hortensia is a much nicer name than hydrangea, don’t you?

You ever play ‘Risk’? It’s a game of world domination. You can’t play it by yourself. You have to play with others. You can’t play it above board. You have to play it in corridors of power (on the way to the toilet, in the kitchen, quickly on the veranda … ) And you never had those meetings. Your fellow players were mistaken. They never saw what ever they thought they saw. Allies are made and unmade in the space of minutes. It’s an all night, all weekend kind of game. It’s a lot of fun. Or not. Sometimes arguments are serious. People slam out the door, never to be seen again. But you can see the whole board at once. You get an idea of the big picture. And it changes. When it changes, it changes fast.

My father always told me I was a citizen of the world. Born in England to an Australian father and a mother who happened to be a New Zealander, I’m lucky enough to have been raised in those three places. I also lay claim to a bonus three years in Hong Kong as a child in the sixties. I may not have seen the whole world but I’ve seen the colonies. As I entered the last third of my life, I wanted to see a bit more of the board. I left Australia to travel to Spain in 2016.

Among the millions of people travelling the planet that year were people who were not playing above the board. As we now know, some meetings took place, which discussed alliances new and old. Some people swear they’ve forgotten all about them. Maybe they never happened. Or maybe they did. Or maybe you’re mistaken. Or maybe, what have you got to lose?

I was on the Camino de Santiago in Spain (Camino Primitivo, the first camino made effectively to keep the Moors down south) when the Brexit referendum result was announced. I walked up a Roman road with two Irish women. One was called Elizabeth and the other was called Mary. They both wore black leggings to mid skinny shin and only carried light bags because their husbands were carrying the big weights. They were staying in hotels along the way as opposed to my more humble albergue lodgings.

Queen Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I, The Ermine Portrait http://www.rmg.co.uk/discover/explore/queen-elizabeth-i

Mary

The Bloodthirsty Queen, Mary I
http://www.ancient-origins.net/history-famous-people/bloody-mary-marriage-reign-and-death-queen-england-004122

Victoria

Queen Victoria in her coronation robes http://qvj.chadwyck.com/marketing.do

And so it was that Mary, Elizabeth and Victoria marched up a two-thousand-year-old road in the North of Spain arguing about Brexit. Invasion irony.

The Victoria (that’s ME!!) carried a British passport and therefore had the most to lose. The Mary and Elizabeth were from the Republic of Ireland so their country was like to benefit from Brexit. It was rumoured that everyone was searching for their own personal Irish granny to get a nice Irish passport. Ireland would be part of the UK for the foreseeable future. Mary and Elizabeth were adamant that Brits who voted for Brexit, who believed those ads on sides of buses that turned out to be out and out lies, should be able to control their own religion. Religion? What sort of financial logic was this?

I began to feel uneasy. What sort of media were these people named for English queens reading? What was the priest telling them from the pulpit? Who was paying the piper? Was I merely feeling unsettled because I was travelling?

Not long afterwards I enjoyed one of those ‘free’ walking tours in Munich. They’re pretty good fun – for the price of a movie ticket you get some historical gossip and an introduction to the lie of the land and major monuments. The tour guide, a personable young blond fellow really from Munich, was laughing about the fall of London. Laughing. No, really, he thought it was hilarious that British people had been so careless with their place in the hierarchy. He thought, well, he hoped, Munich was next in line to the financial throne – as a growing metropolis with get-up-and-go technology and German ingenuity – Munich should be the next King. Lots of new jobs, lots of new businesses; the centre of Europe has to be in Europe, right? (Paris is looking good, Madrid has been mentioned … )

Brexit meant checkmate. The king (and the current Queen Elizabeth II) was out of the game. Europe’s financial king was dead. If you were playing Risk, and countries had formed a strong alliance, you’d want to break their stranglehold on the markets, wouldn’t you? You would want to take that alliance by the back of the neck and give it a good shake. You’d shake it so hard you’d rip its bloody head off. You would utilise the oldest strategy in the military book. You’d divide and conquer. How hard could it be? Who was likely to benefit?

Had Europe become complacent? Would Europe be safe from attack? WWII was regarded as the Hot War. Then came the Cold War. When David Hasselhoff brought the Berlin Wall down with a song, it was the dawning of the age of the Internet and if you weren’t wanking you were chuckling over dancing kittens. Communication became so personal it was impersonal. Information exchange went so viral it evolved into anonymous, flung itself into trolling and then started mining for gold. Not just Warcraft gold. Everyone was muttering, ‘there’s got to be a way to monetize this new-fangled social media’. Guess you could sell ads?

Russian poster depicting hammer and sickle in computer tape

A Russian poster from 1972 calls on us to ‘Advance with the times!’

And so came Trump. After Brexit I wasn’t even surprised. I’d suspected, after living through the desperate red-necked Australian male backlash against Gillard that a female Clinton would never get elected. Clearly there are some rich oligarchs who preferred an unpredictable buffoon to come out and dance madly on a strange glittery media minefield tweeting like a canary while they set about sucking the wealth from whatever backroom deals they could.

If you used to be the head of the KGB and you had amassed unimaginable wealth (think large dragon curled up on mountain of gold and jewels) why wouldn’t you want to disrupt the power balance of the world? Why wouldn’t you send a few Facebook messages out into the social media bubbles? What have you got to gain?

When Trump was elected I was living in a small town in Catalunya called Blanes. I used to go to Spanish lessons, which was silly really as most people in the small town spoke Catalan. The local lady in the bakery said, when I asked her if I should learn Spanish or Catalan, ‘There’s no point in learning Catalan. Catalan is a dead language.’ So I went to Spanish class. In our little group we had a Brit for a while and an Italian girl but mostly I had two slender young mums for company. The blonde was from the Ukraine. Her husband was a politician. She was a lawyer and lived in Lloret del Mar, a tinsel town disco dive the next stop up the Costa Brava. She had a couple of children who commuted to school to Girona. The darker woman had one son and she was from Russia. They lived near my favourite beach, Cala San Francesc. The area was crowded with houses owned by Russians who visited just once a year. There was a lot of Russian money in Blanes. I met Irina in the gym. She was from Russia and worked in reception at a Russian hotel nearby. I used to think it funny, the blonde from the Ukraine was the complete opposite to me. She never wore the same shade of lipstick twice, much less the same clothing. She loved shopping, preferably in Dubai. They had three houses, one in Lloret, one in the Ukraine and one in LA. She spent a few hours a day working online and then she was free to shop and go to the gym. What do you think she was doing online? I have no idea.

Girona was the first place I saw the giant banners that boldly stated ‘Si’ hanging next to the finger-drawn blood stripes in the yellow sand of the Catalan flag. There’s too much passion, blood, and dragons, in Catalan history.

Now I’m working in a primary school in Asturias, a place where locals are struggling to get their language, Asturian, recognised as an official language. Last week I watched a child leap from his desk, cross the classroom and attempt to strangle another child for merely looking at him. It’s just truth that some people believe they are more entitled than others. Some of us get jobs and others get sent to Manus Island. Snakes and ladders. But do you have to kick the ladder over as well?

If you were playing Risk, and you’d killed the financial king of Europe, why wouldn’t you want to destabilise the rest of Europe? You get Spain all stirred up, you might even break País Vasco – getting France hot and bothered for the price of one. And if the hot and bothered turns into war, why, just so happens you’re an arms dealer. And arms dealers are always open for business. Security Council rules.

Where did Napoleon come from? Where did Hitler come from? Where did Putin come from? How is Russia helping Venezuela? What’s China building in Africa? What are White Supremacists doing in America? Anywhere?

When change comes, it comes quickly. Can you feel the social media bubbles rising? What happens when we get to boiling?

What’s the price of peace? Vigilance.

Is anybody watching? Who is on duty? The FBI? The Spanish Government?

Trump says Putin didn’t do it.

Putin is brokering peace in Syria.

Theresa May scolded Russia, ‘We know what you’re doing.’

And what, Prime Minister, can you do about it?

 

Places of Power

Montserrat, Catalonia, Spain is a place of power and communications

The first time I understood the land itself could be a place of power was when reading Susan Cooper’s Over Sea Under Stone. Ley lines (pathways to and from geographic or historic structures) provided points where people of magic could travel through time and correct elemental balances. Bruce Chatwin explored this notion in The Songlines, a book about the network of power across Australia as utilised by different Aboriginal nations. Patricia Wrightson believed the land was the heart of Australia. She wanted to bring Aboriginal philosophy to white settlers as exemplified in her wonderful books, The Song of Wirrun

Many years ago I was fortunate to visit the Dharug National Park, near Sydney in Australia, to see the great rock whereupon ancient carvings depict a variety of creatures and symbols. As I watched my guide pour water into the channels to make them more visible, I imagined a great market place, bustling and full of invisible vigour. With no clear theory of their purpose, the carvings might have been signs of each product for barter or symbols of each tribe or hold ceremonial significance. But most certainly that smooth rock was some kind of meeting place, a place of transactions and a definite place of power.

American Gods, by the ubiquitous Neil Gaiman, resulted from his year-long road trip across the States. As he travelled he realised that certain road-side attractions were based on places of power. These were the locations where his homeless gods, brought by settlers from Europe and Africa, found their source of energy. I thought of places of power often as I followed the ancient pilgrim’s route across the North of Spain, El Camino del Norte.

Irun, the first Spanish town on the border with France, features a very old looking church

The gateway to El Camino del Norte de Santiago is in Irun

but it was not until Oviedo Cathedral that the concept of powerful places really began to crystallise in my mind. With its wealth of extraordinary relics, Oviedo, a kind of religious Disneyland, is the start of the Primitivo, the first Camino de Santiago.

Alfonso II of Asturias, the Chaste, the first official pilgrim immortalised outside Oviedo Cathedral. Check those walking legs!

The camino itself was designed as a kind of border patrol system by Alfonso the Chaste, who wanted to keep Moors down south – out of the pure and Christian North.

Which way to protect the border of Christianity, Pilgrim?

As we walked from Oviedo to Lugo, images of Saint James (Santiago) feature in most churches – the saint flying through the air on a gleaming steed, brandishing a sword and killing Moors left, right and centre.

Saint James (Santiago) lays waste to the Moors in Santiago de Compostela Cathedral

Luckily, your average modern pilgrim in breathable clothing just wants to think about peace and personal salvation and is probably humming ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon as they march along.

Santiago de Compostela Cathedral Pilgrims Mass – religion by technology

But these Cathedrals were most certainly built on places of power as are many monuments in Spain: the Cathedral in Santiago, the Alhambra in Granada and the Mesquita in Cordoba. The Mesquita (with Cathedral insert) exists now as a mash up of religious history but surely the site itself was a place of power to start with? Perhaps Neanderthals held parties there?

Saint James galloping through the middle of a mosque – the Mesquita, Cordoba

History tells us it was known as a Christian Visigoth temple and when Muslims invaded in 711, a mosque was built to share the site, allowing Christian and Muslims to worship side by side. In 784 the Christian side was demolished and a new mosque built on the site. Further additions created the second biggest mosque in the world after Mecca.

The Cathedral erupts in the middle of the mosque, Cordoba

In the thirteenth century Cordoba returned to Christianity but it was not until the sixteenth century that the Cathedral was inserted into the middle of the mosque. I suppose we should be grateful they didn’t bowl the mosque, as they did with fourteen other religious meeting places in Cordoba that were once mosques but the Mesquita was huge and probably prohibited its own destruction by its sheer force of existence.

This mosque could once hold 40,000 worshippers

From outside this block seems to dominate the area by the river. All roads lead to it, tourists are going and coming, and the surrounding merchants have set their nets accordingly. It is imposing with high straight walls and golden doors.

Exterior Mesquita by night

But from the inside? Overwhelming. As soon as I entered the Mesquita I wept.

Jesus in a Mosque

For over a thousand years people have come to this place to draw strength. Now, it is a Christian Cathedral but surely Muslims should be allowed to pray here too? Why not revert back to sharing?

Recently, visiting the monastery in Monserrat, another obvious place of power, I became intensely aware of sounds. The dog barking, the birds swinging across the sky and muffled chatter as we waited in line for the funicular, while the great stones of the mountain loomed over us.

Yellow belljar to take us up the hill – fun fair ride to the big attraction!

Waiting to travel, the cheery tourists took selfies, and the high tensile gnawing slowed to an intermittent grind as the yellow belljar aproached and docked, clunk, into the infrastructure. The noise of the cables muffled as we clustered together inside our tank, travelled over deep crevices in the land and people tried to record distant geology in their phones or ipads.

Recording geology on technology

In the information centre, sounds of the instructional video describe the origins of the monastery in 888 and the Napoleonic destruction in 1811. What compelled soldiers to climb the mountain? What were they looking for as they looted the monastery and printing press? What did they carry away in glee?

Taking photos and memories away from the Basilica, Montserrat. La Moreneta, the Patroness of Catalonia, is up and centre in the altar piece. Off to the right is a queue of people who will touch the sculpture. Eventually.

There were strange noises in the basilica, a distant roaring noise as if we were on a boat, and the tolling bells at 10:45 bringing the congregation into the church for 11am mass. The lights snapped on just as the crowd was exhorted to put away their cameras by quiet attendants. The orderly parade of monks entered, the first voice; clear, Catalan and commanding. The other monks more hesitant, following, elderly men, one trying unsuccessfully to cover his yawns (half dozen or so younger fellows around forty) most with thin white hair and bent backs.

The sounds of the organ rose, quiet but welling music – with a wide roaring of wind supporting the tones – not unpleasant but there. The individuals near me shaking hands, turning to greet their friends and neighbours, and hesitantly, me, saying Pau – peace, I supposed – and immediately caught into their own need to receive communion. Afterwards the eager pilgrims who rose up the stairs and arrived behind the altarpiece to touch the orb of the Black Virgin (another false idol like that adored statue of Santiago) who draws thousands to worship and adulate. They touch the globe of the universe. Tenderly. The rest of the statue is behind plastic.

They exit through a tunnel where people push hard, eager to buy a coloured candle, three euros for a big yellow, red or green tube to place in a line under a ledge of rock darkened by ages of wax smoke. The smell of dead bees and the warmth of the many flames urged me out and up to climb the mountain itself, seek the highest peak of Sant Jeroni, the clear air and whoops. Why, I even heard coo-ees as I reached the sunlit summit.

Heading up to the tallest peak of Montserrat, Sant Jeroni

How many people had climbed these concrete steps up the conglomerate stone lumps, like those sand castles that children dribble with wet sand as they play on the beach? How many Napoleonic soldiers took their sandwiches and lay under a wind tortured shrub to avoid the sun as they admired the view to the coast and down to the city of Barcelona?

Distinctive shapes of the conglomerate rock shapes of Montserrat – a massif that stretches for over 25 km.

The opening of the film Rabbit Proof Fence features aerial footage of the earth seeming, for all the world, to show the skin of the country as the surface of a breathing living being. The outcrops of rocks and sediments that make up Montserrat seem like a wart or growth on top of a natural force. Of course people would build shrines and contemplative structures here. It is a human urge to find a place of power to connect with each other, to communicate and seek strength, together.

Monastery tucked in among the hills of Montserrat

Donald Trump is currently visiting the great centres of religion in the world. Right now he is in Saudi Arabia, the place of Mecca, the home of Islam. Next stop, Jerusalem, the home of Judaism, and finally, he will go to the Vatican, home of Catholicism, proving all roads do indeed lead to Rome.

How deliberate is this journey to the great triumvirate of places of power? Is there something compassionate about the current President of the USA’s pilgrimage? Can we hope for communion, understanding and benevolence for fellow human beings? Dare we hope for peace? What do we think when we observe the enormous arms deal he takes with him? As described in Troy Kennedy-Martin’s 1985 tv drama, The Edge of Darkness, I recall Gaia’s black flowers that will grow to heal the world and feel that all we can do is hope.

Or perhaps there is more to do; may I humbly suggest finding your own place of power? Perhaps climb a mountain or find a ley line or some ancient place of religion and pray to your God/energy/force of choice? At least commune with like-minded people and gather strength from the earth. For, by God, it appears we’re going to need it.

 

<iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/YkgkThdzX-8?rel=0″ frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>

 

Seville, land of artifacts

Ah Sevilla, city of the sun …

El Torre del Oro – The Tower of Gold – built in the 13th Century – across the river Guadalquiver. Like Valencia, Sevillians tired of frequent flooding so they split their river in two. This is really only half a river. The rest is round the back somewhere, dilapidated and ignored. Smell that honeysuckle!

My recent visit to Seville highlighted the built environment; how, after centuries of habitation, cities were arranged, paved and decorated for the use of humans, exclusively. Why not? What’s wrong with living in a place and making it comfortable? It’s home, isn’t it?

Holy Thursday in Triana, across the Guadaliquivir from the centre of town

In Seville, the streets, shopping strips and housing areas were regularly hosed, swept and in many cases mopped with soapy water. The smell of bleach rose from the roads. Certainly in the tourist hub of Cathedral and Alcázar I imagined the use of weed killer to be high. There were no insects or creeping things to be found. I didn’t even see a cat in Seville, although that may have been due to the Holy Week (Semana Santa) processions underway each afternoon and evening. The crowds were so intense that all God’s little creatures may have decided to retire.

Parque de María Luisa : when a frog pond may not include live frogs

Some creatures were still in evidence; I saw pigeons and in the Parque de María Luisa, I saw a skink. There was a larger lizard climbing the wall of the Casa de Pilatos. There were plenty of horses dragging tourists around in shining carriages and lots of little dogs trotting through the crowds.

Compare the variety of wildlife on show today with those recorded in tapestry housed in the Alcazár.

I pondered the notion of our enclosing environment as I wandered around the picturesque streets of Seville, watching cheerful families, dressed in their finery, looking utterly glamorous, attending to the needs of the very young and the very old with assiduity. Small boys marched with toy drums. Small girls ate lollies.

With so many of the penitents being children there were a lot of helpful parents supplying water and treats to keep the kids going

In the processions, parents walked beside their disguised youngsters, some of whom gasped for air during the heat of the day, others handed out saint’s cards or sweets to audience youngsters with their hands out. The penitents walked with large candles, their heads covered by cones of different colours, high and pointed, best to reach heaven. After dark some canny kids collected wax from different candles as the processions waited, pausing in the streets, until they held large balls of wax drips.

Keen youngsters collecting wax from waiting penitents

Holy Week this year was marked by beautiful, consistent, sunny weather and, once lunch was over, people flocked to watch the processions. If not their own church and family, I guessed people knew where to find the best sounding bands (for there were some astonishing musical encounters that cut straight to the emotions) or perhaps where to see the best sculpts or flowers in the pasos.

A Paso waits by the Metropol Parasol (also known as Las Setas, the mushrooms) the largest wooden structure in Spain

The pasos did seem to be the biggest draw cards, the enormous weighty displays of the sacred family; grieving Mary and Joseph, or Jesus suffering under the weight of the cross.

Jesus Paso from above. I think the flowers were iris?

Thirty to fifty men labour unseen under each sculpture, which were heavily decorated in precious metals and fabrics as well as candles and flowers. They could weigh up to two tons.

Costaleros – sack men – who carry the pasos in groups of up to fifty men.

Each team had a different style; lifting and shifting the sculpture to bring the agonised sacred faces to life on their journey into the Cathedral for blessing. Shadows flickered across the carved tragic faces caused by banks of candles or flaps of thickly embroidered canopies shaking in a huge puppetry display. Some specialised in the beginning, perhaps a dramatic lift (like a Citroën) jerking powerfully into the air while others gained approval by a shimmery ending as they sank to their supports. Others needed to perform intricate turns in the twisty lanes of their way, shifting back and forwards in a dance.

Oasis Hostel watches a Semana Santa procession go by, just outside our window around 10:30pm heading to the Cathedral to be blessed. Then they came back again around 1:30am. Band still sounding good. Even through the earplugs.

The men did not come out for a breather. They were handed water in a cup under the velvet curtain and only once did I see the officials around them lift the heavy curtains around the base to let some air flow through. It was a feat of strength and teamwork, similar in my mind to the feat of Castelling that happens in Cataluña. While that teamwork endeavours to go up to heaven as high as possible, the outcome of carrying these pasos is to bear as much weight and decoration as possible, to work as one to bring a symbol of family and humanity to the Cathedral to be blessed. That’s how I saw it anyway.

Paso with tree near the Cathedral

A live tv broadcast showed the same Paso with tree. The tv was in a bar near the Cathedral where I enjoyed a refreshing gazpacho. I could hear the band playing outside as I slurped. Note the two young penitents refueling – not all the brotherhood were men.

As family groups gathered on the streets they bought bottles of water, packets of crisps, puffed corn snacks, and tons and tons of sweeties. There were packets of assorted nuts and lots of pipas – sunflower seeds – that folk chewed and spat out as they sipped their beers.

Settle in and make yourself comfy in the living room of Seville

People sat in lines on the edge of the road as they waited for the processions to pass – there were timetables printed in booklets or printed on posters along the way – seventy churches (or parishes or brotherhoods) would bring their offerings to the Cathedral during the Holy Week. Several different routes wound their way through the streets.

There’s no crossing the roads when the processions are moving. Even when they are waiting, the light says stop.

Bars were open to buy beer, pizza, calamari and tons of different ice creams or gelatos were available. And the rubbish piled up. Not just in bins but also near bins and, in the case of the folk waiting in line, just dropped at the feet. It was as though they were at home watching tv, knowing mum would be along to pick up after them. And she was; those ever-present cleaners got to work immediately after every procession. The last penitent, the last paso, the last official, the last band member filed past and the onlookers fell in behind like Titanic victims sucked into the vortex of the sinking ship (I know it’s a myth, I saw Mythbusters too.) In an hour the streets would be free of litter, the washing truck would have done its work and the officials would have removed all barriers and chairs to stack them neatly for the next day.

Nice and tidy by the Museo del Belle Artes early in the morning

Any plant life in this built environment had to be tough. Big fig trees featured in Seville, and in Cadiz, the first I’d seen since Sydney. Where in Sydney, lawn, or even a fringe of deep-green clivia knife-leaves might surround those big dripping trees, most of the Spanish figs I saw were surrounded by paving. There might have been a myrtle hedge or a spindly rose garden nearby but instead of lawn there would be weeds (whose days were clearly numbered). Attempting to avoid the crowds I decided to take a daytrip to Cadiz on the Costa de la Luz (Coast of light), another historic area.

Tempting soccer pitch in Cadiz

I love a good embrasure but this, in a seaside fort called Castillo Santa Catalina, failed to defend Cadiz from unsightly development

Looking over to Castillo de San Sebastián in Cadiz – an evocative fort that must have witnessed many a battle on land and sea. Note extensive paving.

Back in Seville, I relaxed in the famous Alcazár’s natural-looking grassy area called the English woodland. Surrounding it were formal paved gardens, always keeping nature in straight lines. Perhaps it was this contrast that made me realise just how much of Seville is paved.

Pot plants at the Alcazár

The patios I saw around Seville featured gorgeously decorated glazed tiles, pot plants and imprisoned trees. As I peered down from the Cathedral’s tower, the green of the orange grove looked park-like, but it was really just trees in boxes.

The view from the Giralda, the tower of Seville Cathedral. The Giralda is the former minaret from the mosque that the Cathedral is built upon. Check out that office tower! (Don’t you think town planning is an art?)

Vines in the Parque de María Luisa, particularly bougainvillea, with some wisteria or clematis, raised the riot-colour above pergolas while horses hooves clopped and scraped along the paved roadways. All those paved areas must be incredibly hot in the summer.

The Plaza de España is regarded as alien architecture, which is why it featured in Star Wars II. Also, this is not a horse.

Plaza de España was the site of the 1929 Expo. Given it was such a success, Seville thought they’d get into the act again and, in 1992, hosted another Expo. I explored that site with great interest.

Trains not running on time at Expo 92

No, really, there’s no train today at all

You’ll probably have to drive

Plenty of parking at Expo 92

The site of Expo 92 did not enjoy the same success as its predecessor.  Some industry has been injected into the area but mainly it’s a paved ghost town. Which leads to the question, can the processions not move to the more spacious part of the Seville built environment? No. They can’t. The pasos have to go to the Cathedral. Through ancient winding thin streets crowded with people.

From Genesis – ‘Let the waters team with countless living creatures and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of heaven,’ as quoted in Edward O. Wilson’s Half-Earth; our planet’s fight for life. Mr Wilson points out that wilderness is remaining land that is not used by humans. It may or may not be pristine, it might be weedy for instance, but it has been left alone. And clearly there’s very little of it in Spain and other European countries where humans have evolved, developed and paved. To me, coming from Australia and New Zealand where human footprints have left lighter scars, a thousand-year-old castle is almost beyond comprehension. And you couldn’t pave all of Australia. (Yet.)

One of the results of this manicured, cleaned and organised built environment was the paucity of diversity. There were plane, pine and palm trees aplenty. There were rose bushes. There was lantana and some oleander. But there was not great biodiversity. There were plenty of pigeons, doves and few ducks. But there were not thousands of species alive and well living in harmony with humans.

See the many different plant species surviving in the Alcazár.

See cute little tourist attractions at the Alcazár

Given the built environment in Seville, although lovely with Cathedral, palaces and windy streets, is not a great habitat for animals, I began to harbour doubts about how safe it might be for people (a kind of animal after all.) I happened to get caught up in a couple of stampedes, or avalanches, during the dawn service, La Madrugada, on Friday morning. Known as the highlight of the Semana Santa, the crowds pressed together to watch the pasos near the Cathedral all night long. I did not see any children.

The panic began as a swelling of sound, dreadful and ominous, and it swept up hundreds of penitents, thousands of onlookers and dashed us all amongst each other, screaming, weeping and falling. It was a demonic thunder in the night, the ground reverberating, people pushing and running and looking around to find it; the truck, the terrorist, the anything? It was just plain, simple, bare, terror. That was all. And it only lasted a moment.

Thank goodness, brave people, like a man near me wearing a grey jumper, lifted their arms and lowered them, palms down, urging the crowd to calm. Those various people saved lives, I’m sure, that night. As I turned back after the panic wave had landed me on the footpath, I noticed a shoe in the gutter in front of me. A cardigan lay crumpled to my left. A pair of glinting eyeglasses had been crushed under a hurried foot. Everyone could see there was no truck or shooter but equally everyone could see the man lying akimbo on the ground in front of the kiosk, and a girl weeping, sitting in the gutter, and all of us, shaken to the core, gasping and thinking of Christmas markets, Westminster Bridge and Nice. Police arrested eight people. They had incited the riot by shouting and crashing metallic objects together. Apparently in 2002 there were more serious incidents and I was told the penitents were schooled to go to the walls or lie down if there was a stampede. So the ones urging tranquility were indeed trying to prevent greater harm.

Just before my first stampede

And so the band played on, with their tiny trumpets carolling into the guts, the encouraging applause echoing from the buildings with the clouds in the sky acting as a roof, shutting in and magnifying the noise. The crowd approved and the procession continued, relief and alarm in awkward balance. As I made my way back towards my hostel the way became impassable. The panic happened twice more. People climbed light poles and trees. There was simply nowhere to run.

An elderly lady watched from a window above the procession. She looked so alarmed as people screamed and jumped out of the way of the phantom truck her hand went to her heart and then she too tried to press down with her hands, like that man in the grey jumper from before. Pressing down with all her might to smother the fears of the people surging in front of her. She made the sign of the cross over her heart and looked to the party-people crowded into the flat over the shop next to me, shrugged, sighed, shook her head, all the time trying to calm the crowd. I’m not sure but she could have said, or gestured, ‘It’s just panic’. The third time less people moved after something crashed and a high young female voice screamed in eerie isolation. The crowd remained skittish then, like cattle about to be drenched or horses led to the starting line, turning nervously and rolling their eyes toward any strange sound. An ice-cream parlour with five young employees lined up by their wares, obviously closing early, rattled down their metallic-grill door; a dad holding nervous girls in a duckling-line sought the least disruptive way through the continuing silently moving procession. This paso featured Jesus and his cross. He struggled on with his burden and the forty odd men under him worked together with all their might to bring heaven to earth for one night.

Once reassured, the paso was worthy of admiration and many videos

The golden light glowed as people regrouped, found their friends, realised they were safe with their families and prepared to leave. The elderly lady spoke at length on her telephone, her hand either on her heart or gesticulating with worry. Young people left the march with worried parents, distress and alarm writ large on their faces. After a while more parents pushed through to pick up their young people – the meetings clearly the result of texting – to embrace them and to carry them away even as they removed their cone hats, some walking in their socks or bare feet. As I left, further away, more people, with fresh picnic hampers, little fold-up stools and happy anticipation walked toward the epicentre. Perhaps dawn was near.

A few days later, back in Barcelona, I decided to visit the Maritime Museum. It’s near the port, at the end of Las Ramblas. (Well worth a visit for the Royal [slave] Galley.) Some colourful costume players who entertained the crowd of merry tourists grabbed my attention. A classic Alien creature, performed extremely well, slyly embraced a short hipster while his friends doubled up in laughter and tried to stop shaking enough to take their photo. On the other side of the footpath a duo of monster warriors had captured a father/son pair and were preparing to behead them with scimitars; warriors, costumes and scimitars all painted the same shine of silver. The father/son pair squirmed in hilarity while granny raised her phone to record their silly troubles. A jolly throng, dressed in colourful summery gear, soaking up the sun and Barcelona atmosphere, surrounded these ‘scary’ pantomimes. And so I continued around the corner and in front of me stood a giant, black, armoured vehicle, flanked by two large police officers holding machine guns at the ready.

In my lifetime the population of the world has more than doubled. Our home is smaller and smaller. There is no room for terror. There is barely enough room for us.

Seville, city of cleans

The Lie of the Land in Granada

The Alhambra from Mirador San Nicolás

The Sierra Nevada behind the Alhambra

My visit to Granada, in Andalucia, was too short, of course, but I was greatly impressed by the place. It was easy to see how the lie of the land created the terrible human dramas that unfolded there. One side of the valley is heavily wooded, with constant running water streamed in from the melting snow of the Sierra. That’s where the great fortress complex, The Alhambra, looms over its surroundings. The Alhambra was built on Roman ruins by Mohammed ibn Nasr, founder of the Nasrid dynasty

Granada valley from the Abbey del Sacromonte. The Alhmabra is to the left.

Granada valley from the Abbey del Sacromonte. The Alhmabra is up to the left. You can see the ancient city wall along the crest of the hill to the right.

The land is dry on the other side of the river. That’s where cactus and caves are found. It’s a dramatic demonstration of power and wealth on one side of the river, and poverty, desperation and flamenco on the other.

View of the city wall from the Alhambra

View of the same thousand-year-old city wall from the Alhambra

 

view-behind-abadia

The valley behind the Abbey de Sacromonte

The hills are steep. The Alhambra was well protected from invasion. It lasted three centuries before Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand got their hands on it. They are buried in Granada.

The Alhambra is up at the top of the hill - and there's a river at the foot of this valley. No casual visit from t this angle!

The tower of Iglesia San Pedro y San Pablo. The Alhambra is up at the top of the hill – and there’s a river at the foot of this valley. No casual visit from this angle!

What made the Alhambra’s position even more inviolable was the constant availability of water. Long term survival was possible even if besieged by the strongest forces.

Water courses were entirely practical

Water courses were entirely practical

 

Often decorative, all the buildings centred around water and often had water inside the rooms to add tranquility and bring down the summer temperatures

Practical and decorative. All the buildings in the Alhambra centred around water and often had water inside the rooms to add tranquility and air temperature control

The medieval water channels, still delivering water around the buildings and gardens of the Alhambra, are over a thousand years old

The medieval water channels, still delivering water around the buildings and gardens of the Alhambra, are over a thousand years old, possibly Roman ruins that lie under the Alhambra.

 

In extreme contrast, the other side of the river is baked by the sun into dry, hard territory. But here, people managed to scratch out a living for hundreds of years. People who were disbarred from society. People who were oppressed, expelled and hunted down to die. The Spanish royalty had ways of getting rid of those they considered undesirable and it was hard and terrible. But in the cracks and crevises of this forbidding dirt they managed to raise families and eek out a living.


cave-potteryflamenco-heart

And yet.

Is it not strange that, when today’s daily 7,700 visitors enter the grand palace at the Alhambra, they walk into man-made caves?

caves-inside-alhambra

 

 

 

 

Animals threatened by humans

Many books explore the relationship between humans and animals. Pleasantly, in Emily Rodda’s Dog Tales and Dodie Smith’s The 101 Dalmatians, dogs keep pets. Human pets. Very happily.

Cover of Emily Rodda's Dog Tales

In Watership Down by Richard Adams and Toad Rage by Morris Gleitzman, careless drivers offer great threat to innocent animals by accident. (Flattened and dried cane toad relatives are stored like old vinyl records.)

The rats and the bandicoots are having a war over scarce food in Patricia Wrightson’s Moon-dark. The animals have to call on the moon spirit to help them. The human threat is short sightedness and ignorance – clearing a forest has caused a food shortage for animals already crowded by habitat loss.
In The Silver Brumby by Elyne Mitchell, the human threat is greed. The very day her foal is born she knows

…her son would be hunted as she was and as her own cream-coloured mother had been before her. (Pg 5 Brumby)

Forest by Sonya Hartnett is about a cat and two kittens; lured into a cardboard box and abandoned by a mean human in the forest. They find they are surrounded by feral cats and have to learn the ways of the wild cat tribe. Kian cannot relinquish his hold on his old tame ways and sets out to lead the kittens in a return to domestic life. They have finally left the dark forest, crossing fields towards more heavily populated areas, when they find a path and coming toward them, down the path are two men.

It seemed to Kian there was no reason to run: running was the reaction of a wild cat, a frightened cat, a cat who had no need of the human’s respect, but Kian was not wild, and he would not let the kittens be wild. Soon he would bring them home, and the siblings’ lives would be misery if they learned the wild cats fear. (Pg 201 Forest)

But he was wrong. He should have been afraid. Very afraid, because the humans kill him. For fun. Similarly in The One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Dodie Smith explores human cruelty.

Cover of 101 Dalmations by Dodie Smith

            They went through the open gate and up the cobbled path, wagging their tails and looking with love at the little boy—and the bread and butter. The child smiled at them fearlessly and waved the bread and butter. And then, when they were only three or four yards away, he stooped, picked up a stone and slung it with all his force. He gave a squeal of laughter when he saw the stone strike Pongo, then went in and slammed the door. (Pg 67 Dalmatians)

…[…]…

Missis said: “The bad little boy was only bad because he had never known dogs.” And she was probably right. (Pg 131 Dalmatians)

In Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White about a pig called Wilbur and The Sheep-Pig by Dick King-Smith about a pig called Babe, things are a bit more deliberate. Animals are dinner.

“That was a pig.”

“What will the boss do with it?”

“Eat it,” said Fly, “when it’s big enough.”

“Will he eat us,” said another rather nervously, “when we’re big enough?”

“Bless you,” said his mother. “People only eat stupid animals. Like sheep and cows and ducks and chickens. They don’t eat clever ones like dogs.” (Pg 17 Sheep-Pig)

The fact that humans can threaten animals: subdue them and have dominion over them, means that humans must be different to animals.  We’ll explore this idea in my next post.

Cover of Charlotte's web by EB White