Ricardo Blanco's Blog

A Greek taverna filled with maps

What is a map, other than the unfolding and laying out of the territory — more accurately, a representation of the territory — through which a person may wish to travel? Rather than indicating merely a physical space or geography, maps always seemed to me to offer a way of thinking, a blueprint for what might happen. Maps spoke of the unknown regions of the mind, of alterity and doomed voyages, of treasure that lay hidden away in creased parchment. Robert Louis Stevenson, in writing of the origins of his Treasure Island, encourages the reader to ‘admire the finger of predestination’ and, after offering that curious directive, continues:

I made the map of an island; it was elaborately and (I thought) beautifully coloured; the shape of it took my fancy beyond expression; it contained harbours that pleased me like sonnets; and with the unconsciousness of the predestined, I ticketed my performance “Treasure Island.” I am told there are people who do not care for maps, and find it hard to believe . . . [A]s I pored upon my map of “Treasure Island,” the future characters of the book began to appear there visibly among imaginary woods; and their brown faces and bright weapons peeped out upon me from unexpected quarters, as they passed to and fro, fighting, and hunting treasure, on these few square inches of a flat projection. The next thing I knew, I had some paper before me and was writing out a list of chapters.

If such potential can be released through the making and contemplation of a simple map, hand-drawn and painted with ‘a shilling box of water colours’, how much unresolved wanderlust might be encompassed by an entire room, hall, or Greek taverna, filled with maps?

In Crete, the Lyrakia bar, which lay toward the eastern end of Hania’s old harbour, near the Venetian boat yards, was owned by Giorgos, who wore dark glasses because – as I was told – he had once accidentally or inadvertently caused someone’s death with his evil eye, and never wanted to be held responsible for such a thing again. The Lyrakia, now long gone, was large and square in shape, and the acoustics were, by chance rather than design, exceptionally good. Across the room, facing the long bar, the musicians would sit and play, usually just two of them, a Cretan lyra and an accompanying lauto or lute, often strummed by Giorgos himself, and in between lay a space for dancing which, as the evening progressed, would turn into a long, straggling affair, as drinkers pitched in and dancers snaked around the floor, the more accomplished taking turns to leap, often with astonishing grace, suspended — or so it seemed to me, though in reality it could barely have been for a second – in another dimension, during which their leaping was freeze-framed for eternity, returning as the explicit record, the recurring image, that my memory now associates with the name lyrakia, from the name of that instrument, the lyre; hence lyric, lyrical, etc., but not its homonym, liar, which is a pity, bearing in mind the logical paradox attributed to Epimenides the Cretan, who said that all Cretans were liars, but being a Cretan himself could not reliably be believed.

When temperatures and emotions were raised, fights occasionally erupted in the Lyrakia with the chaotic zeal of a saloon brawl in an old Western. Chairs became weapons and fists flew, and anyone unfortunate enough to be in the way was forced either to participate, or flee. But whatever the outcome of an evening spent drinking at the Lyrakia, whether it ended in dance or a free-for-all, I often felt as though I had entered a kind of dream warehouse, an emporium of almost infinite possibility, and for one reason in particular: the walls, stained, where visible, by decades of cigarette smoke, were plastered with maps, ancient and modern; maps left by bona fide tourists who had lost their way and ended up unaccountably at the Lyrakia (what could they have made of such a place?); stray hippies, equally adrift, navigating their way back from Afghanistan or India in a hashish stupor; Greek naval ratings (this was back in the day of mandatory three-year military service) readying themselves with ouzo before swaggering to the red-light district of the Splanzia, where I also lived. There were naval maps, charting sea channels (one, I recall, of the entrance to the River Plate) and German army maps from World War Two, decorated in Gothic script, and wholly ridiculous Greek maps, possibly designed to mislead the German occupiers, who, however, were seldom misled; maps in Latin script, Cyrillic script, Chinese, Arabic and Persian. Reproductions of the Catalan maps of Abraham and Jehuda Cresques, the Genoese World Map of 1457; Maps of Empire and of the end of Empire, Soviet maps and even, I noted, maps of the moon and of Mars. I once peered at a map of Europe designed for children, a different colour assigned to every country, and I traced with a finger the name for my own country: OYAΛIA. The unfamiliar lettering lent an alien aspect to the place, transforming it into somewhere foreign, which is strangely appropriate, since ‘Wales’ derives from the Anglo-Saxon word for foreigner. I am a foreigner by default.

In his book, Maps of the Imagination, Peter Turchi claims that ‘The first lie of a map—also the first lie of fiction—is that it is the truth.’ He goes on to consider the Mercator projection, through which the world was represented for four hundred years, and which most of us above a certain age instantly recognise, as it was the standard representation of the world used in classrooms across the world it depicted. ‘Despite its being used for centuries to teach schoolchildren geography,’ writes Turchi, ‘it is a particularly misleading projection for that purpose.’

Phillips world map

Gerardus Mercator, a German globemaker, devised his map in 1569, as a New and Improved Description of the Lands of the World, Adapted and Intended for the Use of Navigators. ’On Mercator’s map’, Turchi writes, ‘distortion increases as one moves farther from the equator (and the most important sailing routes of the sixteenth century) so that Greenland appears to be the size of South America—though in fact South America is nine times larger.’ Thus our view of the world changes according to the design or projection of the map we are looking at. There are, apparently, well over a hundred distinct cartographic projections in use today and each of them tells a slightly different story. In his radical deconstruction of the map, J.B. Harley questions the very basis of progress in the cartographer’s craft, as though, through the application of science, reality might be reproduced ever more effectively. Quite apart from the redundancy of progress as a guiding principle (in map making, as elsewhere) is that any representation of territory is somehow neutral: ‘Much of the power of the map’, Harley writes, ‘ . . . is that it operates behind a mask of a seemingly neutral science. It hides and denies its social dimensions at the same time as it legitimates.’ How strange that the representation of ‘reality’ — the earth we walk upon — should be subject to so many interpretations, so many versions; that ‘accuracy’ should be such a slippery concern.

map of crete
The island of Crete, which has been mapped, with varying degrees of accuracy, since antiquity, is instantly recognizable, being long and thin, its span from east to west far exceeding its width from north to south. However, one of the earliest extant maps from the time of Venetian rule, by Cristoforo Buondelmonti (1420) displays the island standing on its head, as it were, which, since we are accustomed to representations of the island viewed horizontally from east to west – is at once disarming and strange, bringing to mind the form of Corsica, rather than Crete.

Buondelmonti map of crete

We might reasonably assume that a map is a means to an end, the end being an actual place we need to go. But another scholarly cartographer, Denis Wood, in his seminal study, The Power of Maps, writes that maps offer ‘a reality that exceeds our vision, our reach, the span of our days, a reality we achieve no other way. We are always mapping the invisible or the unattainable . . . the future or the past.’ Here, it would seem, the reader of maps is moving beyond the normal terrain of cartography, into the realm of the imagination and of dreams; in other words, into the realm of the writer. And that is precisely what the mapped walls (or the walls covered in maps) of the Lyrakia offered me: stuff to dream with, the raw materials of the writer.

It was in Crete that I first read Borges, another lover of maps, whose story ‘On Exactitude in Science’ I reproduce here in its entirety:

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

Borges attributes these words to one Suárez Miranda, in his ‘Viajes de varones prudentes. The idea that those ‘Tattered Ruins’ of the map, ‘inhabited by Animals and Beggars’ are, indeed, the very fabric of the world we live in, and that the map has become the thing it was designed to represent, is a variation on the theme that obsessed Borges throughout his life, that of the other, the double, most famously expressed in his story ‘Borges and I’. In that piece – again a single paragraph – Borges reflects upon his dual identity as both a first person ‘I’ and as another, his own doppelgänger, a ‘name on a list of professors or in some biographical dictionary’, and acknowledges that little by little, he is giving over everything to this ever-present other. This pervasive sense of doubleness, of wandering through a labyrinth of mirrors, seems curiously apt in relation both to maps (which replicate a version of the world) and translation (which replicates a version of the word).

From Ambassador of Nowhere, a work in progress.

 

Cretan threads: Jacqueline Saphra, Tacita Dean, John Craxton, Patrick Leigh Fermor et al.

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John Craxton, Still Life with Three Sailors, 1980-85

 

It began with a poem, which Bill Herbert used in teaching an MA class at Cardiff last month. The poem was ‘Crete, 1980’ by Jacqueline Saphra, from her collection All My Mad Mothers. I reproduce it here:

 

I lived on hard-boiled eggs and yogurt

with a slug or ten of ouzo as my waist grew

 

waspish and my flesh indifferent

through my lean and solitary season.

 

I was girlish and abandoned, took my bed

of sand, those oh-so-green and casual boys

 

for granted, dreamed on beaches

naked, mouth grazed with the taste

 

of smoke and strangers’ kisses

and I howled into the drunken dark for

 

stupid reasons and I thought

this was an education.

 

The poem had me thinking about my own time on Crete; first a prolonged stay in 1975 as an awestruck eighteen year old, when I spent three months squatting a deserted shepherd’s hut that overlooked the Libyan sea; then an ill-fated trip in the autumn of 1977 as one side of a thorny love triangle, and finally a stay of nearly three years between 1981 and 1983, when I lived mainly in Hania.

I have been back only once, in 2004, to research a novel I was writing, but the island lives deep inside me and from time to time I visit it in dreams. It has had a similar effect on other people I know. So any reminder, especially one that stirs such deeply entrenched memories as those dislodged by Saphra’s poem, is bound to linger, and breed a contagion of contingent reminders. This is how synchronicity works, as a cascade of little jolts, each one nudging you into the realisation of something you often cannot quite put your finger on. But this time, clearly, it was Crete.

I have been looking for a picture that might go on the cover of a new collection of poems concerned with (largely) imagined journeys in the Eastern Mediterranean, and I immediately thought of John Craxton. On Thursday I ordered the wonderful book on Craxton’s life and work by Ian Collins which arrived in the post yesterday.

Just before the delivery man popped it through the door, I had been reading, in the TLS, of an exhibition by Tacita Dean – ‘Landscape’ at the Royal Academy, and shortly afterwards, leafing through my newly arrived book on John Craxton, the artist’s name leapt out at me again:

‘Tacita Dean met John Craxton by chance in Crete when she was 17, and he said her rotary-pen drawings of street scenes, plants and people had ‘linear confidence’. But his way of life was even more inspiring. She says:

“He was having fun and living doing what he loved. It was the first time I’d met a REAL artist and suddenly I could see such a life was possible. I still carry around the dream that I might one day live my life in the way that I imagined then John Craxton was living his: peaceably making my work in a beautiful room with the light from the water outside reflected on the ceiling – deadlines, budgets, emails and unremitting travel as yet unimaginable ingredients of my artistic life. It’s good to remember these fantasies of the unattainable, in order to make some adjustments from time to time.”’

In a recent interview with The Guardian, Dean makes a reference to W.G. Sebald, which further excited my demand for overlapping interests:

‘She cites the late German writer WG Sebald as an important influence on her method, in particular the way his writing made the life of the past so present, as if in a dream. “I really liked his description of his work,” she says. “He said when he worked he was like a dog crossing a field, following its nose.” She picks points A and B in the National Gallery air, and traces a slow meandering line between them with her finger.’

(The idea of ‘working like a dog’, by which I mean following one’s nose like a dog in a field, chimes with me particularly strongly just now. My own dog, Bruno, now in his twelfth year, and somewhat arthritic, takes his time crossing any open space. I may be projecting here, but in the past year or so, it has seemed to me that his prolonged dawdling – the achingly long caresses of snout on grass as he inches across park or field – involves a kind of remembering; that the savouring of the scent, indulgence in the raw odour of matter, involves the stuff of memory, a comparing of smells encountered by his doggy brain across the years, and that by sniffing he is remembering, and in remembering, the urge to sniff simply grows and grows, in a hall of scented mirrors.)

So it is with me and the jolts to the imagination that – by analogy – these reminders of the part of my life I call ‘Crete’ continue to bring about.

I remember the first time I met John Craxton. It was in 1981 on the harbour front in Hania. I was with Peter Green, painter and piss-artist extraordinaire, who introduced us: ‘This is my friend Richard, he’s a poet’ – the kind of thing I found deeply embarrassing, having published precisely nothing at the time. I sensed that Craxton did not suffer fools lightly.  All I knew about him in those days was that he designed the covers of Paddy Leigh Fermor’s books. And there lies another story, as over my nearly three years in Crete, I devoutly followed the PLF trail, and even – without planning it,  following an introduction from a Cretan friend – spent an afternoon in the village of Tavronitis chatting with George Psychoundakis, author of The Cretan Runner.

I came across John a few more times and we exchanged greetings but little else, as he was a regular visitor to To Diporto – The Two Doors – a rather insalubrious fish restaurant in Hania’s Leather Street (Odos Skridlov) in which I worked as the (only) waiter through the winter of 1981-2. To Diporto has been closed for many years now, but in the 70s and 80s it was a favourite haunt of Greek sailors, a cacophony of local low life, backpackers, students and terminally stoned hippies on their way back (but where to, man?) from India. I always suspected the Craxton painting reproduced above was set there, and am now convinced, having read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s notes to the 1985 Christopher Hull Gallery exhibition of Craxton’s work:

‘the composition . . . finally took shape in a cheap taverna in the lanes of Hania, none too clean, and very noisy, in spite of ‘NO BREAKAGE BY ORDER’ on the wall. The walls are green, the table blue; the red plastic bread-basket nudges the used beer-bottles [Amstel, as I recall], now recycled as carafes to hold bad wine.’ This could only be To Diporto.

And here another memory begins to twitch: I do remember a very young English woman in Hania in 1982, who was always drawing, and with whom I chatted on a couple of occasions when she came to eat at To Diporto. She was staying up above the harbour, in the part of town where John Craxton lived . . . could she have been Tacita Dean?

According to Ian Collins’ account, Craxton ‘revelled in the continuous settlement of Hania from early Minoan times, saying: “I like living on a dung-heap. I love the idea of thousands of people underneath the house. Nothing would put me off painting more than living in a new town.’ A similar sense of wonderment at living on the ‘dung-heap’ of human remains lay behind my own collection of prose poems, Walking on Bones (Parthian, 2000)many of which are set in Crete.

If these synchronicities happen for a purpose, I am still figuring out why this one came along, and is with me still. I had better get along to the Royal Academy of Arts and see Tacita Dean’s exhibition, and find out where that leads. Perhaps to Bloomsbury, and to John Craxton’s exhibition – alongside Nikos Ghia and Patrick Leigh Fermor – at the British Museum. And then, with any luck – like Bruno the dog – I will simply continue sniffing my way across this particular, fragrant Cretan field.

Hunter, White Mountains

white-mountains-crete-2

 

I woke in the freezing dawn, and looked out from the cave, over a misty sea. I stepped outside and stretched, drank the last of the water from my canteen, stuffed blanket into knapsack, and set off eastward along the coast, following a goat-track. The cliffs fell away sheer to the sea on my right. A false step would result in a terrible plunge towards the rocks far below, but my feet were steady and I moved along the trail at speed. I was hungry and the map I had was useless, but I reckoned I should reach a village by early afternoon. A stream crossed the path and I kneeled and drank, cupping my hands, before filling my canteen. Then the track started to climb, and we joined an ancient causeway. I guessed it had been there since Minoan times. I crossed an incline and on a rock to my left sat a man, shotgun across his knees. A large mountain sheepdog lay at his feet, ears cocked, neck muscles straining. The man called a greeting and patted the space on the boulder next to him. The dog sniffed at me before relaxing and lying down again. The man had a face you don’t easily forget, on account of his startling blue-green eyes. He was in his fifties or sixties maybe, mahogany skin, unshaven, with a grey moustache. He was loose-limbed, agile, with an ascetic, martial air. Two dead hares lay on an olive sack next to the rock. He carried old German binoculars around his neck, relics of the occupation. Lifting a red woollen bag, he reached inside. He cut cheese with a big knife, and passed me a hunk of dark bread, olives, a flask of liquor. I ate, and washed the food down with the strong drink. He nodded at me, almost smiled. Then he pointed at the sky. I could make out a dark speck, at a great height. He said the word for eagle, and handed me the binoculars. When I passed them back I noticed some marks had been engraved into the boulder behind us. They were a row of hieroglyphs, carved with complex and concise strokes. I offered the hunter a cigarette and we smoked in silence for a while. Before I left, I asked him about the hieroglyphs, and he looked at me with those piercing eyes and said: those, my child, hold the secret of the world. I wished him good health and went on my way. The sun was over the mountains now and the mist had cleared from the sea. As I walked I was happy, thinking about the marks in the rock that contained the secret of the world. I believe I can still remember the hunter’s face, though I saw him only once, so many years ago. But whether it is his face I am remembering, or the face of some other man, I will never know.

 

 

‘Hunter’, by Richard Gwyn, was first published by Wales Arts Review on 25 June 2015.