Monday 29 March 2010

How Would Little Larry Get the Manhole Cover Off?

I met a man and woman yesterday on the path from Roslin to Polton. “Do you mind if I ask where we are,” the woman said, holding out her map. I showed her: across the North Esk from Hawthornden house. “That’s where I started,” I said, “and I’ve looped around through Roslin to where we are now.” At that she paused, glanced at her husband, and said, “Well, we’ve just come from Roslin. One of us is terribly wrong ” We shrugged, laughed, wished each other well, and carried on in opposite directions.

I was the wrong one. Let’s forget the details, noting only that by the end of the afternoon I’d walked miles—most of them in exactly the wrong direction, over significantly uneven terrain, and in the rain. I never did find my way home, only to a pub in Roslin, which became my instant home, what with excellent pints of Tenant’s, a Liverpool-Sunderland footie match on tv, and a bar matron who, having touched my sleeve and remarked, “Oh luv, you’re soaked”, said I’d take a taxi home and she’d call one for me right now.

For the second time on my recent travels, then (the other time in Vigo), I’ve made a series of right/left decisions that have been precisely correct, but 180 degrees wrong. As if my private gyroscope, until now a source of pride, has tipped or gone away.

So, in the next sentence or two either I add that to the breakdown ledger known as my body, or I find “lost” in my body of work these days, my auto-geography of Hillsdale, as in, people used to get lost all the time finding their way to our place amid the crescents and drives and cul-de sacs so favoured by 50s-era urban subdivisions, requiring elaborate sequences of directions, often administered by dad over the phone to relatives who’d given up and pulled into the Esso on Albert, or the time my son Larry, who must have been 6 or 7 at the time (one long-time Hillsdalian told me), disappeared in the afternoon. We couldn’t find him—where the heck is he? F. and I checked with the neighbours. I even took the manhole cover off at McNab and Jubilee in case he was down there. In the end we found him sleeping in his own room.

Friday 26 March 2010

A Thousand Years, My Rear End

“Rained all night,” says one of my breakfast companions at Hawthornden. “I wonder if the Picts built fires in their caves, or thought the caves were enough?” (The Picts (for those like me who didn’t know) were pre-Celtic people “of uncertain antecedents” who ruled, if not terrorized, most of Scotland for more than a thousand years, harassed the Romans and the Britons, were eventually Celticized, Christianized, and confined until “nothing more was heard” from them after 844 AD.)
We’d toured their caves upon arrival here at Hawthornden Castle, more a great house built onto the remains of a castle, that had been built of sandstone on an impressive jut of stouter rock, in which last night the Picts may or may not have huddled in their caves out of the rain.

The Picts where short folk. For me, not so short, a tour of their caves meant dodging both the puddles of water and the stone roof. I spent the whole time stooped over with my hands on my knees. This is how they lasted for a thousand years, I reckoned. No one else could stand more than two minutes in one of their caves.

“It’s thought,” says my companion, “the Picts were covered with tattoos, or painted themselves blue. Imagine, running naked across the heather, painted blue.” Well that would be fine, it seemed to me. There’s room in the caves to paint yourself blue.

Living up in the house/castle has been something of a Pictish cave-tour experience in some ways. I can’t fit my knees under the breakfast table. The climb up the spiral staircase to the top floor is a little like feeding a long towel through a wringer washer. And if I want all of my body, including the top third, under the shower nozzle, I have stoop and squeeze, without extending my rear end through the shower curtain where it might drip water onto the floor and from there, as the sign says, go “underneath the lino and cause problems below”.

But the prize—richer than rain, brighter than fog, lead-glazed glory for a man’s rear end—is pictured here:

Wednesday 24 March 2010

A Walk

Having arrived at Cockpen Road, Bonnyrig, via 30 minutes along a former railway roadbed from Hawthornden, I faced a familiar question: left or right. I chose right (to the post office), I forget why—perhaps because a half block left was the Quidsucker Motel, where I’d likely stop in for a pint and a page or two—a page and a pint or two—and never get to the post office.

Turning right took my clear to the south edge of the city. I turned back. After a while I turned up a path leading along a creek—don’t play near the water!—and straight (I was sure) to the post office. 15 minutes later, I found myself in an obviously new development called Rosebottom, where supposedly you can “breathe the harmony”. I turned left, heading up a hill from which I’d see (I was sure) the post office.

Not yet. “Which way to the post office,” I asked a man in a flat cap.

He gave a little smile. “I’m sorry to say you’re a long way from it,” he said. He set me on the correct route from which, within minutes, I took a wrong turn, and another within that one. I asked someone else, a young man fiddling with his ipod, where the post office was, this time gesturing vaguely off as if I already knew but just needed confirmation.

He gave a little smile. “Nowhere near here,” he said, offering a new set of directions.

I had it now. Soon I neared Cockpen Road, the post office just a mile or to the right. A car pulled to a stop in front of me, the driver leaning over to speak to me out the open window. “I’m looking for Wesley Street,” said the man.

I gave him a little smile, and a “Sorry, can’t help you.” By now I’d decided to stop for a pint at the Quidsucker and leave the post office for another day.

Here it is now, corner of Cockpen and Wesley.

On the Trans-Pennine Express: First Day of Spring

I see lambs in the fields. Tiny things a stout hawk could carry off. (The fields are separated by hedgerows reinforced with barbed wire fencing, bringing to mind a story in the Telegraph this weekend about the deterioration of, and attempts to rehabilitate, England’s hedgerows. A lost art, laying them properly, the article said). But in the next field of sheep—maybe they call fields paddocks here, like the Aussies do—no lambs at all.

The train from Prescott, Lancs, to Edinburgh is already jammed with passengers. A young man boards—glad, I think, to be done with the awkward good-bye to his father. “Don’t get yourself killed in Spain or Morocco,” the father calls. Two sisters board, waving final good-byes to their parents through the train window. Mom pretends not to cry; dad pretends to boogie with the joy of it all. “Aw, look,” one sister says. I ask my seat-mate if this train is always so crowded. “It wasn’t until now,” she says, not unkindly.

The sun, which has been grand all day after two days of rain since I got off the ferry in Plymouth, falls hidden during the watching for lambs, as if I can have only one or the other.

Before I can choose, the sun comes out again. And look, more lambs!

Saturday 20 March 2010

Twelve Ways of the English

1. They "don't do table service on weekends".
2. They bustle from cafes carrying synthetic cups of coffee or tea which they consume as they walk, drive, or turn on their computers.
3. Many of them have blue eyes.
4. By 6:00 pm, they've tucked into their final meal of the day.
5. At the next table, I think they're speaking English.
6. But I listened to the Arsenal football coach speaking before the match with West Ham . . .
7. They don't stop for a pedestrian unless they have to.
8. If they're a matronly woman selling you a newspaper, they call you "Love".
9. They set matching shakers of salt and pepper on the table, no matter what the meal.
10. They travel in pairs so that on a a ferry, say, if you see one, you'll soon see the other.
11. The young don't carry umbrellas.
12. You cannot smoke in here.

PS: Boy, was the wild mushroom stroganoff with new potatoes and a side of garlic bread ever good!

Friday 19 March 2010

Night Rise

How powerful the sea, treating the 41,000-tonne Pont Aven, and everything in it, to moments of weightlessness between crest and trough of any wave, like the next one, enough to flip Grace Kelly--High Society showing in Cinema 2, deck 6--from Crosby to Sinatra; to lift a 50-pence coin from the table and a Spanish sandal from the floor, one soon to descend upon the other; to delay the pepper's landing on the egg.

If you think this is something to write about, try it.  Entire words never make it to the page or slip away as soon as they get there.

You no sooner finish one breath when it's time to start another.


Thursday 18 March 2010

Ship Lag: This Was Three Hours Ago

How delightful the departure! Not because it’s a departure but because it’s delightful—just the way I would have done it: fire the engines backward from the ferry terminal (the 11-lane parking lot, near full two hours ago, empty now), let the back end drift out a bit, fire the sideways engine at the front until the nose points out to the exit channel in the middle of Santander Bay, and then fire forward, letting loose with a deep, echoing blast from the horn and sliding past the para-sailers, faster than a man can walk, and out beyond La Magdelena peninsula, where I spent such happy hours yesterday, out to open sea.

First I was ready to claim this ferry is so large I can’t feel it moving. Then, walking back to my sixth-deck cabin near the back left corner of the ship, I felt it move. One step of my Spanish sandal seemed to land sooner than expected, the next not landing at all.

If I wanted to hum, I’d hum “Farewell Iberia”, if there was a song of that name. Land of the sea.

Having finished Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (borrowed from Maria in Vigo and already posted back) and Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey (bought second-hand in Lisbon), I’ve started Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked, almost the only book in the ship’s shop by someone not named Steele, Brown, King, or Ludlum (although I almost opted for a Patricia Cornwell mystery). After Woolf and Sterne, and Moure before that, the Hornby seems thin, quick—like travelling by plane, instead of the mightyPont-Aven, bound for Plymouth.

Wednesday 17 March 2010

On the Heights with Vigo Bay: A Wait

Vigo Bay can tell the sea from the sky by the noise.

No one's cheeks are red in the palace.  The Duchess must be away.

When Vigo Bay sees a giant ship about to appear, he leans a ittle harder against the stone.

How many corners in the sea?  Vigo stops counting at one.

Give him the vista panoramica he'll wait there till noon.

He's not quite
his continental self.

Tuesday 16 March 2010

Fishing with Vigo Bay: Tonight's Catch

Vigo offers water where the fish are--his little buddies, the lamprey--but the "Real Madrid" wants water where the depths are.

The tide's coming in, Vigo's cold.

Finally he's figured out which way he empties.

A drunk fisherman, seeing Vigo's innovation--a thermal mug for transporting hot or cold beverages--says "Hey hermetico, hermetico!"

Vigo throws away cheese.  It sinks.  He throws away a pen that doesn't work.  It floats.

Vigo Bay looks in a mirror, sees the dark forms under concrete, tide rising.

Vigo's the ancient hook too old to use, too heavy to remove.

Thank goodness, he breathes.

Vigo aches in shadows.

Vigo Bay doesn't answer
the same way twice, the moon
as it is.

Ferrol to Santander

Meet FEVE: neat, trim, a little funky.

It takes twelve and a half hours for four or five hundred km, but it's a gem of a trip. Never far from the coastline--for several hours of blue dazzle on this sunny day we are right on the coast--this two-car, narrows guage special slips through diverse countryside, from mountains to coastal flats.
A random list of its delights: a ticket guy who pats the empty seat facing me, inviting me to place my feet there (unlike the later ticket guy, who tells me to get them the hell off), tunnels and fog, pine and eucalyptus forest (and the eucalyptus scent of the hand cream applied by the curly-haired woman behind me), farms and livestock, freshly tilled gardens, cemeteries (always with the best view of the sea), clotheslines and fencelines, spectacular highway overpasses and gorges, station chiefs in red hats and red batons, rooftops and courtyards, blossoms, and the Camino de Santiago (the famous pilgrimmage route west--maybe that's why the area appears so neat)--all of this directed by a day-long sun that rises as we leave Ferrol and has just set as we arrive in Santander, right on time. 

Friday 12 March 2010

Moure Reading

        Could there be a more interesting book of poems than Erin Moure’s new O Resplandor? This afternoon on the Praza da Independencia, Estrella in hand (although I set it down once in a while), let’s say no.
        With all the translating (broadly speaking) going on, any fragment of text appears as a moment of stone about to submerge in some field again (or, as Vigo Bay might say on his nautical map, as “rock which covers and uncovers”).
        As if the text is already translating at the moment of its writing, as if if this book publishes simultaneously in multiple languages, without changing editions, as if any one word operates within multiple trajectories, intersecting neighbouring trajectories just for the moment of this line, each poem a fresh heave, as if the poems are translating themselves as they’re read.
        And that’s just Part One, which delivers serious elegy content, yet so lightly rendered.
        This is a book to learn from.

Wednesday 10 March 2010

Writing Time

        “Some things cannot be repeated,” I read just now in a list of phrases from Saramago’s Journey to Portugal I use for starters once in a while. What mystery in Hillsdale might Saramago’s statement lead me to, I wondered, writing it down. Around what corner, after which thirty steps, above the manhole on what crossroads? How many times, I wrote, echoing something I’d written many years before, must I walk down the street, to see what’s in it for me?
        Such deliberations didn’t even last as long as it took to write them down, thanks to the man with the weed-whacker and its short, noisy bursts below my apartment window in Vigo.

        It’s a heavy-duty model, which he swings in slow arcs back and forth over the uneven terrain down there, as if divining for precious metal. Seems to me I heard him yesterday, and the day before. I threw my spoons into the sink.  Hasn’t he found anything yet?
        Last night it was the dog, so-and-so’s dog who lives downstairs. It’s a placid and silent creature all day until about the time the Spaniards sit down for the dinner and the Canadians settle into bed. Then little Viper lets loose with an hour and a half’s worth of vibrant yap that pings off the concrete and through open windows and back. Repeating, after me.
        Now silence. The man carries his whacker away—a bit sadly, if I’m not mistaken.

Tuesday 9 March 2010

Vigo Bay

        I went to school with a writer and guitarist named Noel Hudson years ago in Nelson, B.C., near the Salmo-Creston highway.  I think it was Noel who named one of his characters Salmo Creston.  Likewise, someone named a woman Emma Lake, many years later, and I borrowed my mailing address for a character named Spence Street.
        Here in the Spanish city of Vigo, the body of water lying right now in the bright sun is called Ria de Vigo, or Vigo Bay.  ¨Hey, that´s not a bad name for a super-hero,¨ I remarked to my friend Belen a while ago.  Nothing in her reply suggested otherwise.
        Subsequent developments have diminished the super-hero notion.  Yesterday, for instance, Vigo Bay banged his knee against a scooter parked on the sidewalk of lingerie shop near Praza de EspaƱa, which he thus translates as Plaza of Pain.


Tuesday 2 March 2010

Anecdote of the Last Night in Guimaraes

     At 6:40 I asked the woman in the gallery shop to join me for a drink when her shop closed at 7.  Quickly she said, "No, that´s impossible.  I have two daughters."  5 and 8, I guessed, correctly.  Later she told me they stayed with her mother during the day at her parents´ land 5 minutes out of Guimaraes. "They have rabbits and chickens and other small creatures.  The girls love it."
     The bulk of our conversation was about love poetry.  The other day she´d translated, most enchantingly, a love poem painted in Portuguese on a cup.  But here she was tonight saying any love poem is specific to the "personal situation," as she called it, of the two lovers.  I proposed a more general application.  She said, "Well, maybe," leaning forward quickly to claim, as she did two or three other times, with a touch of her hand on my forearm, that she was "no expert."
     I´m sure that everything about me revealed that I was no expert either.
     Now I´m at the restaurant, at a table for four.  As is the custom here, the waiter inquires with a "Just yourself?" as, assuming so, he clears away the other three settings. 
     "Yes," I say, then decide to confide in him a little.  "I asked someone to join me but she said it was impossible."
     "Well, sometimes it´s better that way," he said, most helpfully.
     I had the steamed asparagus and a steak.

PS  Wouldn´t you know--a beautiful young woman picked tonight to sing some fado about six feet away from me.

Stone Still

I meant to think, in the previous entry, about stone at home (where home = the southern Canadian prairie). I'm sure any farmer could tell us where the stone is (although my old friend who farmed just SE of Regina until two years ago claimed there were no stones on his land). Shelley Sopher and her work with tipi rings knows where the stone is. Coteau Books published Legacy in Stone ("Now in Paperback!") last year, a book of stone houses in Saskatchewan--plenty of stone in that book.
In Hillsdale, not so much stone--mainly the small kind you can pick up and huck. Or the broken pavement kind.


My home for the past week, in Guimaraes, lies within a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Not because Gerry Hill slept here, I don't think.

And not because two packs of school children on some kind of school trip have clustered nearby and stared at me in the last few minutes. 

I saw the school children yesterday too, different ones, playing a ball game in the middle of the Placa de Santiago, the medieval centre of the city.  On the old stones, the ball bounced like crazy.  Also on the Placa: high-fashion shoppers, smokers in the doorways of cafes, city workers, university students, local residents out for a stroll, etc.--in short, everybody.

We're all within stone here in this old city.