Lorien street

Plateroom 28

“In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lórien, there was no stain.” – Tolkien

A wave of grief washed over me as I crossed the street. Just as I stepped off the curb, I noticed a young woman walking along the other side. She couldn’t have been 20. She was showing a little too much leg for such icy weather, and she didn’t give a damn. The look on her face, at the same time confident and fragile, so reminded me of my daughter, I had to bite my tongue to stop myself from crying.

It was that time of day in deep winter when the light was just starting to fade. When evening and late afternoon are one. The wind was harsh and unkind…

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Lorien street

“In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lórien, there was no stain.” – Tolkien

A wave of grief washed over me as I crossed the street. Just as I stepped off the curb, I noticed a young woman walking along the other side. She couldn’t have been 20. She was showing a little too much leg for such icy weather, and she didn’t give a damn. The look on her face, at the same time confident and fragile, so reminded me of my daughter, I had to bite my tongue to stop myself from crying.

It was that time of day in deep winter when the light was just starting to fade. When evening and late afternoon are one. The wind was harsh and unkind, cutting at my neck. I pulled my scarf tighter about me. The legs of my trousers whipped about my ankles. Bits of litter spiralled around in eddies. It was the sort of day when snow always seems imminent, but never actually falls. Pushing south, walking blindly, almost at random, I continued into Mayfair. Here were antique dealers, discreet fine art shops, vendors of ancient vellum manuscripts.

All I knew, in my mourning, was to walk through the winter streets of this great city. It was my therapy, my treatment, my medicine. If I stopped even for a moment, I should end up thinking. And if I allowed myself time to think, I’d be lost. I would think of my daughter, who was gone. I could not bear to do that, not just yet. I knew that, in time, I would: I would pause, own what had happened, and move on. But not yet.

I found myself in Berkeley Square, walking down the west side. The trees were bare, and brown, twigs and branches flung accusingly out against the grey sky. I barely noticed myself crossing Curzon Street and continuing into the little maze of secret streets that led out onto Piccadilly. Here, my best efforts not to cry failed me, and the tears came flooding out. For a few moments, I stumbled along in tears. A big city is no bad place for a grown man to cry: you can be on your own, lost in the crowd. Maybe you want to cry alone; maybe, really, you secretly long for someone to notice.

As darkness fell, I stopped to look into the window of a little bistro. A few flakes of snow were just starting to appear.  Inside, an Italian looking man of about my age, caught my eye. I’m not an impulsive man, but I turned nonetheless and straightaway went inside, out of the cold, biting wind. The waiters’ gaze through the window had seemed to contain, in a single split second, all moments. Though nothing was said, something mysterious passed from him to me. Some complicit understanding, some unspoken empathy.

The first thing I noticed as I came in out of the cold, was a cheap framed print of Rembrandt’s “The raising of Lazarus”. So out of place did it look, my eye was drawn towards it. The waiter, already moving to greet me, noticed my looking at the picture, and murmured very quietly, almost under his breath, “anche Gesu piange“. Then he spoke in English, and louder, with words of welcome. I glanced at my watch, and saw that the time was a little after 4pm. I ordered coffee, and after a glance at the menu, some form of cake I cannot now recall.

It seemed to me that the waiter lingered when he bought my coffee, and we spent some time talking, but I cannot recall what we were talking about. Outside, snow fell, and the darkness was complete. But inside, in the warm pools of light, there was friendship. The waiter’s brother arrived, and we got talking. I talked my heart out, I spoke at length. They listened to me and they hardly said a word. I talked about my whole life; about my former wife, about my daughter. They nodded solemnly as I told them about the tragedy of her sudden death. One of them put his hand on mine. The other touched my shoulder.

I thought I ought to get up to leave. I was in a kind of daze. But not so dazed that when I moved to stand up and get my coat, I didn’t spot the lady behind the bar shaking her head minutely. Then she smiled at me like I was the only person in the universe. “But…” I started to say.

“Stay” said the waiter.

Later, more people arrived, and there was dinner. A hearty dish of meatballs in a spicy tomato sauce. Sphaghetti, Garlic bread. Red wine. I could never afterwards recall the conversation at that dinner. It was as if I was an honoured guest at an intimate family dinner, an outsider made welcome at a private occasion for just a few close friends and relations. For a brief while, the burden of my grief was put by.  It was laid aside, like the scarf and overcoat hung up in a little alcove by the door. It was like when someone carrying a huge and wearisome load for many miles, lays that burden down.

For a while I was sat at the bar, talking to the barmaid, the one who’d smiled at me so winningly. She was telling me about her profoundly disabled son, and the struggles they had getting him dressed, or strapped into the car. I sipped a glass of some Aniseed spirits – Pernod, perhaps, or more likely Sambuca, in an Italian restaurant. “Don’t miss”, she said, a London barmaid to her fingertips, “your train”. I gave a start. Then she did something quite startling. In a quite intimate way, yet somehow in no way suggestive or inappropriate, she took hold of my hand, and said something. She said this:

“Don’t look at your watch.” She looked right at me and said again, “Don’t look at your watch. Just put your coat on, and walk.”

I put my coat on. The wonderful Italian waiter shook my hand. I opened the door and stepped out of the warm restaurant, into the cold night air. The snow must have stopped a while ago; I must have been in the place for hours, yet there was just the merest icing sugar dusting on the roofs of the cars. At the corner, I saw the name of the street: Lorien street.

Walking away through that hidden quarter of lost streets, I turned a corner and found myself in the bustle of Piccadilly.  Something was not quite right.  It was too busy for late evening; I’d been sat in that bistro all night, talking, eating, drinking, until after 10 o’clock. Yet here were buses, taxis, pedestrians, tourists. Automatically, I shot the cuff of my overcoat and looked at my watch, and saw that it was just after 5pm. Thunderstruck, I wondered what had happened. Was it even the same day? 

I turned round, and retraced my steps. But of Lorien Street, or of that little bistro, I never found any sign. I’ve been back that way several times, and never found so much as a trace.  Nothing could be found of that hidden place of healing, where those people made me so welcome and were so generous to me in my time of grief. 

Cool Hand Luke, by Donn Pearce

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When set against the wider genre of prison literature, “Cool Hand Luke” is perhaps somewhat tame. This isn’t “Papillon” and it certainly isn’t in the same category as anything coming out of the prison-based suffering that took place in the Soviet Union. This story has nothing of the human privation and suffering shared with us by Solzhenitsyn in “The Gulag Archipelago” or “A day in the life of Ivan Denisovich”.

In spite of this book being made into to a classic film about torment and suffering in prison, it doesn’t really deal with the full horror of man’s inhumanity to man in prison.  To learn about that you’d be better off listening to Joan Baez’ wonderful song “Prison Trilogy (Billy Rose)”, and then weeping.

What we do have here, is prison guards and prisoners as real people. We get stories within stories. The author introduces his hero only gradually, delicately, subtly.  Even the narrator doesn’t tell the story but puts it in the mouth of one of his characters, “Dragline”, all of whose teeth were brutally kicked out by Miami detectives. “Dragline” is played in the movie by George Kennedy, in one of his best roles.

The story is an interesting reflection on post-war Florida. It’s difficult to pin down exactly when the story is set.  At one point, the narrator (the prisoner called “Sailor”) uses the term “diesel locomotive” making it clear that this is new and unusual.  He refers to a train called the “Silver Meteor’.  Most of the convicts are under thirty; some seem to have been WWII veterans. In the end, we learn that Luke’s experiences in the war have by no means left him unchanged.

There are hostages to fortune which may offend the modern liberal reader. Twenty-first century sensibilities will not take kindly to the frequent use of certain words describing African Americans. And then there is the passage describing “The Girl” – a schoolgirl of sixteen.

But in the end, this book was a thought-provoking, worthwhile and entertaining read. Have you got your mind right? That deep underlying question can keep some of us awake at night, for there’s a little of Cool Hand Luke in us all.

Radiant state, by Peter Higgins

This third novel of the “Wolfhound Century” trilogy manages to stand alone – as all good novels ought – and is entirely readable without first reading the other two. Higgins has created a weird alternate reality. I like this kind of “genre busting” – except that it is no longer true to say that the work busts genres. It can be labelled in more than one way, perhaps. Opening as hard sci-fi, it alternates thereafter between political thriller (an assassin trying to kill the president) and weird pure fantasy (archangels and witches and dead bodies wandering through the trackless woods).

Others have done work like this. It owes much in concept to the work of China Mieville.

One thing I do like, though it sets my teeth on edge as someone who loves the explanation, the reason, the exegesis in detail – is that he has not explained himself. He makes no explanation of the strange happenings on what is clearly just an Earth with a place that is, whilst never referred to as such, just Mother Russia. He does not account to the reader for their being two moons, or for the dead yet walking the earth, or for archangels and sprites and other strange creatures coming into the story with no more ado than a ticket inspector on a train or a shop-keeper.

Dark Voyage, by Alan Furst

Holiday reading? Yes: I’ve long enjoyed the writing of Alan Furst. He writes exquisite English, with nuanced characters, all having complex, ambiguous motives. He has deep sympathy for the fallen, human condition.

But for all that, Dark Voyage is different. It has the same male protagonist making his way through a world distorted by Nazi Germany, someone who is at root, a modern European in a world dominated by war splitting Europe asunder. It has the same cast of characters – the shadowy, morally bankrupt SIS agents, the Russian emigres, the fixers and shakers in smart suits. The women. He even manages to get in a dinner at Table 14 at Heinigers in Paris, though only in flashback.

Unusually for an Alan Furst hero, the main character speaks English. Also, most of the action takes place at sea, and here is the rub. I was, as a former seafarer myself, drawn to the book on that basis. At the same time – and I’m not entirely sure how the author would take this – Dark Voyage reads like a Douglas Reeman novel. Reeman’s naval stories are – like Furst’s books – quintessentially readable tales about the frailty of the human condition in time of war or impending war. Both writers suffuse their stories with the gentle light of compassion and understanding for their characters. Both -as the jacket of Dark Voyage attests – fundamentally humane writers. Wonderful, relaxing stuff. Reading does not have to be hard work.

Bright Brandelhow

Outside, in the July evening, the round grey pebbles of the lake shore were still warm from the hot summer sunshine. The sky across the water was turning to pink, but he was comfortable outdoors in only shorts and T-shirt. Gathering handfuls of sticks, he prepared a little fire on the shingle a few yards from where he’d pitched the tent. He no purpose but leisure, and no food to cook. He had the ancient desire to look into the heart of the fire.

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He’d been brought to the Newlands Valley, to this western shore of Derwent Water, as a boy. In that single week he had lost his heart. He loved it all: the tree-clad islands, the rounded fells, the delicate peace-drenched light at evening and early morn. As the dry sticks caught fire and began to burn, he recalled the smell of woodsmoke. This little place, this nook of old England, this quiet corner of the Lake District, was to him, a kind of spiritual centre, a place of pilgrimage.

Behind the little tent on the tree-fringed meadow by the lake, the land rose up in waves to the high tops, even at this hour, crested in sunshine. In the stillness, the sound of sheep high on the fell could be heard.

Dark Brandelhow

Two nights ago, he and the others had escaped from Force Crag Mine. They’d made their way across the grain of the country, through trackless valleys and overgrown fields, through the dark and storm, travelling at night, hiding in the daytime. They’d got here late in the night, drenched, cold, shivering, and holed up in the ruins of an old outdoor centre. They’d no means to light a fire, and nothing to cook even if they could. The ever-present risk of being caught, weighed heavy upon them like their cold, wet clothes.

Their pickup was to be by boat, on the lake that had been called Derwent Water. There was a jetty in these overgrown woods, that their contact had named Brandlehow. A jetty from better times, when there was still such a thing as tourism. But now, the woods, the fields, the land, were drear from decades of neglect.

Only the trees moved, roaring and bending, creaking in the wind. The rain dripped from the leaves of early Autumn, and where there was no shelter, it came down endlessly, an unstoppable grey noise.

Hope ebbed away as the grey daylight grew stronger. Sheets of rain obscuring the mountainside became visible. Dark clouds were down on the high tops. Wind was whipping the water into a frenzy. Even on this lake, there were substantial white-horsed waves thrashing the stones of the shore. The wind was like a solid noise in the tree tops; the rain, relentless, dispiriting. Despair and defeat was an actual taste in the mouth. It seemed to be over. They would be stuck here, and stuck here, they would be caught.

As the daylight thickened, the weather, if it were possible, grew worse. Nothing animal or man was out and about or moving in this weather. Small furry creatures were hidden away in their burrows and holes, hiding from the storm. Such people as were left in this remote part of the country would likewise be in their homes. Only the trees moved, roaring and bending, creaking in the wind. It was all wet leaves, mud, sodden clothes, wet hair, wet and cold feet. Hunger gnawed at them, weak as they already were from working in the mine. They were paralyzed with defeat and exhaustion, hunkered down in the woods, sheltering in long collapsed ruins, buildings that had been derelict for decades.

The crunching sound of footsteps…what was that? His heart hammered. A man appeared from around the corner of the ruined building, wearing a rain-soaked outdoor jacket and a leather hat. He had a straggly beard, and missing front teeth. He looked silently at the fugitives for a few moments, saying nothing, and yawned hugely. The three of them tiredly struggled to their feet. The stranger did not speak. He just indicated with a jerk of his head, in a voiceless movement, that they should follow him, and almost as quickly as he appeared, he was gone.  One after the other, the three fugitives went back out into the rain and wind, their feet squelching, wet socks, wet shoes. Their footwear was light prison issue work shoes, not really appropriate for walking in wild country in heavy weather.

Following the stranger down through the dripping woods, they came to what looked like a very derelict landing stage.  A rather odd-looking boat was alongside.  The boat was somehow, difficult to see. It was certainly grey. It sat very low in the wave-strewn water. Or was it grey? Was it bigger than it appeared to be? The three of them climbed onto the landing stage, each casting dubious and fearful glance at the violence and malevolent passion of the waters beneath, and thence, following the man in the hat, down onto the strange grey boat. Close-up, it looked like a launch of some kind. As soon as the men were aboard, the boat jerked violently astern, and, rocking violently, turned away from the shore.