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Crossing Patagonia

2 Sep

Writers Chain tour of Argentina & Chile, continued:

After three days of readings, lectures and tea parties in Puerto Madryn, Gaiman and Trelew, yesterday we made the long trip across the Patagonian meseta to Trevelin, in the foothills of the Andes. We travelled in two cars, laden down with suitcases, snacks and literary confabulation. Our car was driven by Argentinian anthropologist Hans Schulz and contained myself, Jorge Fondebrider and Tiffany Atkinson. We endured two punctures, the first in the middle of absolutely nowhere, the second after dark on the outskirts of Esquel. The first puncture proved problematic as we could not remove the tyre despite our manly efforts. We flagged down a truck, driven by a local farmer, Rodolfo, who kindly took Tiffany and myself to the small settlement of Las Plumas, where we had arranged to meet the other vehicle, driven by Veronica Zondek, and with instructions to find a mechanic, or at least to borrow the right tools from the garage there. Having acquired these, a relief party (Zondek and Aulicino) was sent back to the stranded Schulz and Fondebrider, and the flat tyre changed, while the contingent of Welsh poets and our coordinator, Nia, waited in a roadside canteen and ate empanadas and pasta.

During the rest of the journey across the prairie, the landscape began to change. The endless flatlands of sparse bush began to erupt into extraordinary outcrops of sandstone, stalagmites of sharp russet pointing skyward, or else solid slabs of sediment rising against the backdrop of an enormous sky, across which were layered fabulous accumulations of cloud. We arrived at Trevelin at midnight, where the hospitable proprietors of the Nikanor restaurant served us leek soup and homemade ravioli, washed down with an organic Malbec wine. Around us, the snowcapped mountains provided the sensation of having arrived in a place encircled by sleeping dragons. The casa de piedra, our hotel, is done up like a Tyrolean ski lodge, with a huge fireplace in the lounge, and carved wood furnishing. We slept the sleep of the just.

Leaving Puerto Madryn

Leaving Puerto Madryn

Two hours into the journey we had a flat. Nearest settlement, Las Plumas, 50 km away.

Two hours into the journey we had a flat. Nearest settlement, Las Plumas, 50 km away. We were, in fact . . .

 . . . in the Middle of Absolutely Nowhere.

. . . in the Middle of Absolutely Nowhere.

For much of the journey we followed the River Chubut

For much of the journey we followed the River Chubut

journey 5

journey 6

journey 7

The finger of destiny

The finger of destiny

journey 9

journey 10

Coffee stop

Coffee stop

Coffee stop

Coffee stop

Hans makes a point, eyes clearly fixed on the road ahead.

Hans makes a point, eyes clearly fixed on the road ahead.

journey 14

The endless open road

The endless open road

Sandstone sierra, early evening.

Sandstone sierra, early evening.

journey 16a

last light, approaching Esquel

last light, approaching Esquel . . .

Second tyre change, jist outside Esquel.

Second tyre change, just outside Esquel, Tiffany by now wild-eyed, if not demonic.







Montaigne’s Tower

23 Aug
Study in Montaigne's Tower, Summer 2013

Study in Montaigne’s Tower, Summer 2013


‘Habit’ according to Samuel Beckett, ‘is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit’: and it is precisely what Montaigne seeks to uncover and dismantle in his essays. He does this in various ways, but one of his favourites is to run through apparently marvellous and diverse customs from distant cultures in order to convince his readers that what they take for granted is only a matter of what they are accustomed to. As he himself put it: ‘Everyone calls barbarity what he is not accustomed to.’ His essay ‘Of Custom’ discusses, by turn, the question of whether or not one should blow one’s nose into one’s hand or into a piece of linen; how in a certain country no one apart from his wife and children may speak to the king except through a special tube; how in another land ‘virgins openly show their pudenda’ while ‘married women carefully cover and conceal them’; how in other (unspecified) locations the inhabitants ‘not only wear rings on the nose, lips, cheeks and toes, but also have very heavy gold rods thrust through their breasts and buttocks’; how in some nations ‘they cook the body of the deceased and then crush it until a sort of pulp is formed, which they mix with wine, and drink it’; where it is a desirable end to be eaten by dogs; where ‘each man makes a god of what he likes’; where flesh is eaten raw; where they live on human flesh; where people greet each other by putting their finger to the ground and then raising it to heaven; where the women piss standing up and the men squatting; where children are nursed until their twelfth year; where they kill lice with their teeth like monkeys; where they grow hair on one side of their body and shave the other. By blasting his reader with these numerous examples of apparent strangeness, Montaigne makes them question the practices which they habitually regard as unquestionable and normal in a new light. Indeed, he raises many of the issues that cultural anthropology began to tackle four centuries later, and he can safely be regarded as an early relativist. When he had the opportunity to speak with some American Indians from Brazil, the Tupinambá tribe, of which a delegation was brought before the court at Rouen, he was not simply concerned with ‘observing’ them, as though they were rare specimens of primordial life: he was much more interested in recording their amazement at their French hosts. The observers observed.

A bottle of Chateau Michel de Montaigne, 2007 vintage

A bottle of Chateau Michel de Montaigne, 2007 vintage


Of paradise and serpents

11 Jul

I don’t want to give the impression that a reading tour of the Antioquia region of Colombia is a picnic, as there are workshops to be given, schoolchildren to speak to about the arduous apprenticeship and perils to be overcome when embarking upon the writing life, interviews with zealous journalists to carry out; but yesterday’s visit to the colonial town of Santa Fe de Antioquia was a true pleasure. Apparently it is a popular tourist destination, but I didn’t see any. So what follows is a purely touristic and pictorial post, intended for family and friends, without any literary qualities at all.

I was accompanied on my reading by a Colombian poet, a Mexican poet, our Colombian presenter and my charming reader, Santiago Hoyos. The reading was attended by the good solid folk of Santa Fe, who particularly appreciated a poem of mine that makes mention of the Virgin Mary, and loudly applauded every poem that made mention of God (even when used ironically) by my Colombian collegaue, who goes by the splendid name of Robinson Quintero, pictured below, with arms and legs akimbo (there’s a word you don’t hear very often these days). I was touched that shortly after arrival we were presented with a fruit cocktail drink, made of watermelon, mango and pineapple, with a dollop of strawberry ice cream, the kind of thing that used to be called a knickerbockerglory. Mouthwatering. We were driven in a moto-taxi (a kind of lawnmower, with a bench for passengers) down to the Puente de Occidente, a famous bridge over the River Cauca, constructed by the engineer José María Villa (b. 1850), a local lad made good, who won a scholarship to New Jersey Institute of Technology and assisted in the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. José María Villa never quite managed to oversee the entire building of the Puente de Occidente as he was (as the Spanish Wikipedia entry has it) ‘carried away by alcoholism’ and his German assistant saw the project through.

After our reading a delightful pair of chaps played Colombian folk songs for half an hour and then we all went off for dinner. The return trip late at night, in a very bumpy pickup truck was reminiscent of a passage from Kerouac, enlivened as some of the company were by an organically grown herbal product, and when the lights of Medellín appeared below us, after ascending from the valley of Santa Fe and then descending in hair-raising fashion from a pass in the high cordillera, it felt as though we had returned from another epoch, another world.

Over lunch today the Colombian poet Juan Manuel Roca asked me what my impressions had been of Santa Fe. I thought it was wonderful, I replied, a kind of paradise.  Colombia is a land of many paradises, he said, but also of many serpents.

Colombian Knickerbockerglory

Colombian Knickerbockerglory

Knickerbockerglory with owner

Knickerbockerglory with owner

Main square, Santa Fe de Antioquioa

Main square, Santa Fe de Antioquia

Puente de Occidente

Puente de Occidente

Robinson Quintero, poet

Robinson Quintero, poet

santa fe de antioquia

Houses at dusk, Santa Fe

Typical Colombian truck

Typical Colombian truck

two men with guitars

two men with guitars

off to dinner through the mean streets of Santa Fe

off to dinner through the mean streets of Santa Fe






Medellín, drugs and arse cake

8 Jul

Medellín, once the domain of drugs baron Pablo Escobar, where I am attending the International Poetry Festival, is also the city of Fernando Botero, the painter and sculptor of all things obese. Wandering through the city streets this morning, again accompanied by my Argentine bodyguard – allegedly a black belt in at least three deadly martial arts – I find myself constantly assaulted by images of fatness. To wit, a shop display with three fat models:

ava modelos

Then the work of Botero himself: a fat lady, a fat cat, and an image of myself, by now rather concerned about my own increasing girth, standing beneath a fat man’s penis.

ava boteroava fat cat

ava blanco and statue

And just in case that was not enough fatness for a morning’s stroll, we pass a pasteleria display window, with an arse cake in pride of place:

ava arse cake

It will be obvious by now that Botero was fascinated by certain shapes. He painted many canvases of pears, for example. Whether these came first, and the cult of the curve followed in local design, or whether he was simply inspired by his love of pears, I cannot say. But there are some fabulous avocados on sale from barrows all over the city. I bought a fat one for 60 pence from this gentleman, who is counting his money:


I mentioned in yesterday’s blog the longstanding association of Colombia with mind-altering substances of all varieties. There are street vendors who sell a paste made of coca leaves and marijuana which you are supposed to rub on your skin. Why? I have no idea, but will ask. The number of shops openly selling drugs (albeit of a legal variety) is quite staggering. The biggest chain is called DROGAS ECONOMIA, and their shop fronts display the sign: DROGAS SUPER BARATAS (super cheap drugs).

drogasAnd to summarise, here is a citizen whom I photographed during a long discussion he seemed to be having – at some volume – with his maker:

ava man speaking to god

Who needs poetry with all this going on?

Don’t wash your femurs here

7 Jul

no lavar femures

Why would anyone leaving a sign above a sink with a warning that femurs should not be washed? Probably only in an archaeology laboratory at the University of the Andes in Bogotá. I was visiting the labs with two archaeologists at the university, Elizabeth and Luis, who showed me some of the work they are undertaking with human remains from the pre-Columbian period: burial chambers, sarcophagi and what not. They also showed us around the Museo de Oro, a fabulous museum containing more gold than anyone will ever need. I am not big on gold, but some of the craftsmanship of the work was extraordinary. I was more struck by the section on shamanism, the images of animal transformation and artefacts associated with the use of hallucinogenic plants, with which many of the indigenous people of the region have been closely associated.

The figure below, a pre-Columbian anticipation of Rodin’s Thinker – the elongated head apparently indicates status, but could equally well be the result of ingesting too many of the aforementioned hallucinogens – was particularly striking.

thinker bogota museo de oro

Finally, on a not unrelated theme, a nice piece of street graffiti from Bogotá advertising a ‘Carnaval Cannabico’, in which we might safely guess that very little got done.

carnaval vannabico


The cities within yourself

20 Apr

Paper Ship

This has been Turkish week, but also – and with a synchronicity that pleases me very much – Greek week. The London Book Fair had Turkey as its ‘Market Focus’ and two expeditionary groups of Turkish writers descended on the city of Cardiff (whose football team, it will be noted, are playing in the Premier League next season). Meanwhile, I have been immersed in the work of the Greek poet, C.P Cavafy, whose 150th anniversary we celebrate this year.

The first group of visitors were poets, three of whom I have been involved in translating. They are Gökçenur Ç, Efe Duyan, Adnan Özer and Gonca Özmen (the illustration above shows the cover of a booklet of their work, produced by Literature Across Frontiers, The Scottish Poetry Library and Delta Publishing). After an unforgettable lunch (which deserves a post of its own), the poets were joined by fellow-translator Zoë Skoulding and Literature Across Frontiers director Alexandra Büchler for an evening of poetry and conversation at Coffee a Gogo, just across from the national museum of Wales.

 Gökçenur Ç, Gonca Özmen & Efe Duyan

Gökçenur Ç, Gonca Özmen & Efe Duyan

Adnan Özer in Cardiff market

Adnan Özer in Cardiff market

Then on Thursday, we were visited by the Turkish novelists Ayfer Tunç and Hakan Günday for a reading and discussion of their work, under the heading ‘Alone in a crowd’. The idea was to discuss the theme of cities -  our citizenship, I guess – or experience as city dwellers. When preparing for my own contribution, I was immediately reminded of a line by one of the Turkish poets I hosted last weekend:

The more you travel the more cities you will find inside yourself

Which had led me to ask its author, Adnan Özer, how well he knew the work of Cavafy, a writer of whom I have been a fan, no, a devotee, since my mid-teens. Adnan told me that he admired Cavafy’s work, but that he was not a major influence, apart from in that particular poem.

The poem behind the poem, if you like, is this one:


You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried as though it were something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I happen to look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these same houses.
You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.

(translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

And it seems here, as in Adnan’s paraphrase, that the city is a cypher for the self, reflecting our fragmented or multiple selves. We know that Cavafy is speaking of his own beloved Alexandria, but we also know that the city here is a state of mind, one’s personal predicament – and the human predicament also – from which one can never shake free.

At the same time as being surrounded by a crowd, we are all ultimately alone (in the city, as elsewhere), despite the onslaught of synthetic familiarisation on offer from  substitute communities such as Facebook and Twitter. On which theme, I was interested to read, in Russell Brand’s Guardian piece that he singles out one La Thatcher’s most devastating legacies in precisely this area. In the quest for personal advancement at all costs, in the elevation of blind greed as the most praiseworthy and rewarding of human qualities, we are almost duty bound to ignore the needs of those we share the world with. As her loathsome sidekick Norman Tebbit said, in reference to the defeat of the mineworkers’ union:“We didn’t just break the strike, we broke the spell.” The spell he was referring to (writes Brand) is the unseen bond that connects us all and prevents us from being subjugated by tyranny. The spell of community.

And if that all seems a bit random, Turkish week at LBF>Cardiff City Football Club>Turkish poets>Famous Greek Poet>living in the city>Thatcherism and its legacy – then please forgive me. It does connect, I promise. And if it doesn’t, well, like I said once before . . . blogging is a way of thinking out loud.

Tales of the Alhambra (or thereabouts)

9 Apr
house of a 1000 turds

The house of a thousand turds

Strange that in one’s memory a house takes on a different shape, a different context, becomes a dream house.

When I was living rough, a quarter of a century ago, I spent a couple of months in Granada. Along with some other homeless travellers we squatted a house on a sidestreet off Carerra del Darro, across from the Alhambra. It was a miserable building, known among those of us unfortunate to live there as ‘the house of a thousand turds’, for reasons that do not require too much explanation. But it provided some protection from the rain, and from the cold nights.

The point in this digression into my personal past is that I have often wondered about the house – or palace, as it became in my retrospective imagination: I have even wondered whether indeed it actually existed. I described its location in the vaguest of terms to Andrés, who has lived in Granada for over twenty years, and he could not think where such a palace might be. Surely it would be well-known, a palace on a hillside facing the Alhambra? It was bound, he said, to be somewhere on the Albaicín. He even mentioned consulting a local historian, who would be able to identify the mighty house from my description of it. I nodded assent, not really caring: the palace of my imagination would suffice.

It was just as well no one investigated my claim. I would have been heartily embarrassed. Last Wednesday, while walking up the hill from the Carrera del Darro (a river – actually a stream – celebrated in Lorca’s Baladilla de los tres ríos de Granada), I came face to face with a boarded-up building that immediately took me back through the years to 1988, and an appalling period of penury, sloth, craziness and some profound melancholy, living from hand to mouth – more often from bottle to mouth – through one Andalucian winter. I knew at once it was the building where I had slept. When I had stayed there, the building was already in a parlous state. It would seem that its role of providing a sleeping place for the homeless continued long after I had left the city. As one of my daughters pointed out however, the plans for restoration are well overdue. The sign apparently says the renovations are due for completion in the year 2008.

View of Alhambra from the house of a thousand turds

View of Alhambra from the house of a thousand turds

I stood back from the house and wondered at the capacity of the human brain to convert such a building into a palace. I find no answer. I have dreamed about the house, although it keeps shape-shifting. I have written about it, or versions of it. It is the opening setting for my short story ‘The Handless Maiden’, and provided the inspiration for a prose poem, which I reproduce below. But a palace it is not.

Dogshit Alley

It was my first and only visit to the artist’s apartment. He lived on the top floor. His studio offered a sensational view of the Alhambra. But first, he said, we had to negotiate dogshit alley. The artist spoke of it like one describing a secret shame. There was nothing he could do. On the third floor lived a resident who kept a wolfhound. She never exercised the dog, and let him use the landing as a toilet, which he did, prolifically. Formerly, the top flat had been empty, and no one came to visit the woman and her gawking beast. Now the artist was installed above her, and the woman had adopted the stance of long-term resident with rights. The dog, she said, harmed nobody. She seemed oblivious to the smell. The artist could not confront her. Each time he passed the landing he felt like vomiting. He tried speaking with the woman. She would stand in the doorway, the hound slavering and growling at her side. ‘Look’ she said, smiling meekly: ‘he wouldn’t hurt a fly. He’s an old softie’. She ruffled the grey fur on his head, and an incredibly long tongue flicked out and caressed the underside of her wrist. The woman smelled of gin, had white hair, parchment skin, and the smile of a ten year old. ‘He hates going out, see. He gets so scared’. The artist was lost for words. He told me: ‘I don’t know what to say to her’. When we climbed the stairs to the third floor the stench suddenly hit me. I held a handkerchief to my nose. We navigated the landing, stepping over mountainous turds. I didn’t breathe until we reached the attic studio, and walked out into the clean December air. The Alhambra stood magnificent against the backdrop of the Sierra Nevada: an impeccable statement that made me realise that it is the reproduction of a cliched image that renders a cliche, and not the original. ‘You see’, said the artist, ‘I just don’t know how to deal with her at all.’ He lived in the house of a thousand turds with a dying woman and an agoraphobic wolfhound for neighbours. This was the artist’s quandary and he could not resolve it. 

(from Walking on Bones, Parthian, 2000)

vending machine 1 Finally, on a trip to the coast, we have a modest lunch at Almuñecar, in the Manila bar-restaurant. On the way back to the car, we pass a vending machine, selling worms. That’s right: worms. Fisherman apparently puts money in the slot and a bag of live bait comes out. Who the hell thought this one up? These worms, they live inside the machine, possible for months on end. What do they do? What on earth can they do? What would you do, packed in plastic inside a vending machine? Have you ever heard of anything so extreme? Who would be a worm?

vending machine 2

The Accidental Tourist

30 Mar


Notre Dame from Pont des Arts

So I’m crossing a bridge, to get from A to B, and suddenly I’m on a film set. No, let’s correct that: I’m on a rolling series of film sets. This is what happens on a brisk stroll around central Paris. First, a polka through the old Jewish quarter, Le Marais, then across the river via the Pont des Arts (Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, The Bourne Identity) as shown here in my artfully contrived photo, where lovers place padlocks, cadenas d’amour, in order to imprison the object of their desire for perpetuity. Then to lunch at Le Polidor, made famous by Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.


I am pleased to report that our waitress lived up to my wildest expectations, embodying the French talent for what foreigners erroneously believe to be rudeness (a kind of exaggerated politeness, dressed with venom) which is actually something quite different: it is, as I discovered – and it took me years to work this out – a direct challenge to the interlocutor. It says: how are going to take this? Lying down like un wimp, or joining in with a bit of callous and vituperative banter of your own? If you opt for the latter, you cannot lose. If you succumb to the former – the classic anglo-american mistake – you inevitably feel maltreated and offended. So join in, dammit! Throw back a few witty and sophisticated remarks of your own, not forgetting to smile charmingly as you do so. It cannot fail.

Joyce residence, Paris

Later in the afternoon, after strolling past the houses once occupied by Joyce (a British writer of Irish Origin?) and Hemingway (but also, and perhaps more significantly, Pound) what could be merrier than a crêpe, in a crêperie which my Argentinian companion, Jorge, assures me is the only place in Paris that serves dulce de leche – which I must admit I find hard to believe – in Rue Mouffetard.

Creperie in Rue Mouffetard

Also recognizable from Amélie in Rue Mouffetard is the seafood stall at the bottom of that street, which nagged at my memory from I knew not where, but now I do.

seafood stall in Rue Mouffetard

It’s quite possible that a short walk around the fifth arrondissement satisfies the needs of all five senses more rapidly than anywhere else on earth. But who knows, perhaps I’m just biased.












The Losers’ Club

13 Mar

losers club


Following a comment made about my last post; namely Tom Gething’s remark that not getting it is essentially another way of getting it, I am reminded of the pragmatic consequences of not getting it, in relation to The Loser’s (sic) Club, an association of persons – I am not quite sure whether or not ‘membership’ is a valid descriptor here for one who has been randomly recruited – but you can read about it on Bill Herbert’s blog, Dubious Saints.  The story concerns a very wet night in Istanbul in which Bill, Zoe and myself decided, at Bill’s insistence, that we find the place, the real place, rather than allowing it to remain where it clearly belongs, in the realm of the imagination. We even had a general direction, if not a precise map location. This urge to conjure the subliminal or the rumoured into actual existence is precisely the kind of ‘getting it’ that most handsomely illustrates Phillips’ thesis. Getting it, (in this instance, locating and identifying a place called The Loser’s Club) becomes a sort of insanity, and is most definitely to be avoided.

And yet . . . one can see the allure. The club – or rather our desire for it – beckoned us on under the persistent downpour, through street after street of not getting it.

You will notice that on the sign, (photo courtesy of Nia Davies, a ‘member’ of the club) that the apostrophe is placed before the s, indicating that there is only one loser in the loser’s club. This shatters all concepts of a club. A club of one is something of a paradox, if not simply a contradiction.  It also means that if the eponymous loser is not at home, then no one will be there to open the door.

I must ask myself: did not getting it, I mean, not getting, or finding, the losers’ club (in his post Bill opts for a more felicitous use of the apostrophe) enhance or enrich my life? I don’t know, because I never got there. We went somewhere else instead, and that was OK, but you never know what you’ve missed when you don’t get it, you only know what you get, which isn’t what you originally sought, and therefore isn’t it.





On Not Getting It

12 Mar


cat watching goldfish

Curiosity can sometimes be more satisfying, more enhancing, than the mere consolation of achievement.

A while ago I wrote here on Kafka’s claim that in spite of knowing how to swim, he had not forgotten what it feels like to not know how to swim – and consequently the achievement, or consolation of ‘being able to swim’ was only of any value when weighed against the state of curiosity and mystery of not knowing how to swim.

Or something like that.

Adam Phillips, in his excellent book Missing Out, says something very close to this. In the chapter ‘On Not Getting It’ he writes that sometimes ‘not getting it’ (whatever ‘it’ might be – knowing how to swim, or winning some straightforward or else obscure object of desire) is more interesting than ‘getting it’. He imagines a life ‘in which not getting it is the point and not the problem; in which the project is to learn how not to ride the bicycle, how not to understand the poem. Or to put it the other way round, this would be a life in which getting it – the will to get it, the ambition to get it – was the problem; in which wanting to be an accomplice didn’t take precedence over making up one’s mind.’

There is something very appealing about this notion of ‘not getting it.’ Here’s more:

‘What I want to promote here is the alternative or complementary consideration; that getting it, as a project or a supposed achievement, can itself sometimes be an avoidance; an avoidance, say, of our solitariness or our singularity or our unhostile interest and uninterest in other people. From this point of view, we are, in Wittgenstein’s bewitching term, ‘bewitched’ by getting it; and that means by a picture of ourselves as conspirators or accomplices or know-alls.’

For now, I am surprisingly happy to be bewitched by the notion of not getting it; to remain enhanced if occasionally bewildered by my inability or disinclination to get it.





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