The land is unholy. It starts to the south east of the village, a kilometre or so along the road where the earth smells of burning metal, an acrid carbon overlay not carried on any breeze but dense within the pigment of the air, the soil a black and ash-smeared crust. No birds. Then, intermittently, bewildered trees, their snowy leaves incongruous under the August sun, shades of grey and copper, magenta, and colours that do not have names except in an alchemist’s almanac, colours that exist only in the immediate aftermath of fire and which still cast out a dead heat. To walk out into this, to step on this unholy ground would be wrong: this wasteland needs to be uninhabited by creature forms. This is the burned-out anteroom to some terrible memory. A couple of years ago, not far from here, a bush fire like this claimed the lives of eight firefighters, cut off and encircled by flames that move faster than a charging bull, swifter than a running deer. When fire comes this close the balance of mortality tilts.
In the top picture the village is visible in a gap between the trees; the bell tower, a few red roofs.
Met up with this tortoise on a walk in the Albera range yesterday morning. The Alberas are home to the last natural population of the Mediterranean tortoise (Testudo h. hermanni) in the Iberian Peninsula, and they are a protected species.
One of my walking companions, a friend and local farmer with family affiliations to the land around here that go back many generations says that its size indicates it is at least a hundred years old. Its markings suggest it is a male. This means Tortoise was wandering along these paths when our chaps went over the top on the first day of the Somme, when Lenin’s revolutionaries stormed Petersburg. By the time of the Spanish Civil War, when these hills were teeming with refugees and war-wounded, Tortoise would have marked out his territory and become familiar with every ditch and rock and bush on his patch.
He was sunning himself when we approached, and retreated into his shell to avoid the attentions of our dog. But once the dog was kept away he re-emerged to take a look at us. Then, having determined that we didn’t pose a threat, he set off down a bank, at considerable speed – well, relatively speaking – negotiating stones and clumps of bush with clumsy determination. He moved, I would say, with deliberation and with definite purpose, although he was not going to be hurried.
Which brings me neatly to the point. I am reading Sten Nadolny’s The Discovery of Slowness. The book is about the life of John Franklin, the nineteenth century polar explorer. John had issues as a child, and as a young man, concerning his slowness. The novel catalogues his subtle protest at the institutionalised imposition of quickness or speed. He struggles single-handedly to legitimize his own slowness, and in his own fashion, he succeeds. It is a wonderful novel, beautifully translated by Ralph Freedman. To press my recent argument in this blog about literature in translation, I should point out that the novel was published in German in 1983 and had to wait twenty years before appearing in English in 2003. In the meantime two hundred thousand crap novels were published in English, which no one will ever remember.
“A good story doesn’t need a purpose.”
“John was in search of a place where nobody would find him too slow. Such a place could still be far away, however.”
“He wandered through the town and pondered man’s speeds. If it was true that some people were slow by nature, this should remain so. It was probably not given to them to be like others.”
“There are two kinds [of seeing]: an eye for details, which discovers new things, and a fixed look that follows only a ready-made plan and speeds it up for the moment. If you don’t understand me, I can’t say it any other way. Even these sentences gave me a lot of trouble.”
And, of course, Achilles and the tortoise: John’s old schoolmaster, Dr Orme, attempts to explain one of the Paradoxes of Zeno:
“‘Achilles, the fastest runner in the world, was so slow that he couldn’t overtake a tortoise.’ He waited until John had fully grasped the madness of this assertion. ‘Achilles gave the tortoise a head start. They started at the same time. Then he ran to where the tortoise had been, but it had already reached a new point. When he ran to the next point the tortoise had crawled on again. And so it went, innumerable times. The distance between them lessened, but he never caught up with the tortoise.’ John squeezed his eyes shut and considered this. Tortoise? he thought, and looked at the ground. He observed Dr Orme’s shoes. Achilles? That was something made up.”
That was something made up. The whole ‘Achilles and the tortoise’ thing is made up. It’s a nonsense, and I remember thinking the same thing as a boy myself. It is the kind of idiot sophism upon which Western Philosophy seems to be founded. Who believes this stuff anyway? I had the same feeling as John Franklin when I came across Zeno’s Paradox – no doubt via Aesop’s fables – which provides the prototype of the tortoise story.
As Aristotle summarized: “In a race, the quickest runner can never overtake the slowest, since the pursuer must first reach the point whence the pursued started, so that the slower must always hold a lead.”
But who says the pursuer must reach the point whence the pursued started? Why? Why does everyone accept these assertions as though they were a given when they read these ancient texts, whether Greek or Chinese, the kind ‘steeped in ancient wisdom’? Why can’t the pursuer avoid the point at which the pursued started? Why does no one ask these obvious fucking questions? Is it some kind of convention, by which we all suspend our critical faculties and pretend to be idiots so as to have someone’s pet theory proved right, be it Zeno, Aristotle or Christopher Columbus? But I digress.
It’s no longer useful, as a universal principle, to assume that fast is necessarily better than slow. Fast food, fast sex, fast money, faster death. I rest my case. We all know we can do speed, and what is costs.
I believe that in an era where speed is probably a more highly-valued commodity than love, The Discovery of Slowness delivers a salutary message.
We leave the village for a day and the place nearly burns down. Within hours of our departure I receive a text from a friend saying there is a bush fire encircling the village and everyone has been instructed to stay indoors, behind closed doors and windows. Many fire engines, seven helicopters and two planes converge here in an attempt to control the flames, and for a few hours it is a highly dangerous place to be. As the afternoon wears on the reports improve. The fire has been contained, with minimum damage to the vines, but considerable destruction of forest – largely cork, but also some olive – and all the hillsides to the south and east of the village are covered by a thick pall of smoke. When the smoke has lifted and we return, the next day, the bare outlines of the hills creates an entirely new landscape.
There is something about the spread of fire in a hot dry climate that cannot easily be conveyed to our wet green consciousness.
The fire brigade reckon the blaze was started by someone tossing a lighted cigarette from a car on the road at Delfiá, a couple of kilometres away. I wonder whether the cretin responsible has any notion of the destruction they caused. Hundreds of hectares of damage to trees, plant life and all the animals that live there. Unbelievable what idiots people can be.
Traditionally, local councils employ ‘firewatchers’ in the summer months, a handy summer job for local students. Because of the cuts in public spending this luxury has been sacrificed. Delays in the reporting of a fire allow it to break out of control long before the fire services arrive, and are consequently far more expensive in the use of resources. Another false economy.
The impressive photographs were taken by our neighbour, Maia Castelló. Ricardo Blanco thanks her for allowing their display on his blog.
- Other than an early family holiday and a single trip to Barcelona in my early twenties, my first real taste of Catalunya was in 1984. Penniless and without purpose, I was walking down the coastal road from Port Bou to Llança on a June afternoon, when I was caught in a terrific rainstorm. A car pulled in and gave me a lift. The driver was the painter Lluís Peñaranda. So began a friendship that lasted until his death last December.
- I went to an exhibition of paintings by Lluís the year that we met and was astonished by his representations of the landscape of the Ampurdan, that rocky edge of the Pyrenees that flattens out into a plain flanking the Costa Brava. His work is pervaded by an elemental iconography of dark cypresses, multicoloured fish, silver moons. It is a parallel, but distinct landscape to the one the world knows through the work of another son of the Ampurdan, Salvador Dalí.
- Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter. I returned to live in Catalunya in 1988, and settled in Barcelona. The city was preparing for the Olympic games, held in 1992. There was a chaos of excitement that little more than a decade after emerging from the dictatorship of Franco, Barcelona was presenting the new Spain to the world, or rather, the new Catalunya.
- Catalunya used the Olympics to inform the world that it was not Spain. Its policies of linguistic ‘normalization’ (the term used for the dominance of Catalan in all public documents and undertakings) and the fact that all state-funded education took place through the medium of Catalan created a new atmosphere: perceived as legitimate self-assertion by the Catalans; regarded less favourably by many other Spaniards.
- I left Barcelona in 1990, but returned many times over the summers that followed, staying with my young family at different houses in the Ampurdan area.
- In 2002-3 we moved to a small hill-village in Ampurdan near the French border (picture above). My daughters attended the local Catalan School and I worked on my novel, The Colour of a Dog Running Away. The following year we bought an old and run-down property in the village. Linguistically and culturally, this area is very proudly Catalan (in contrast to the international and largely Spanish-speaking city of Barcelona). Since I had been coming to the area for twenty years, I had made friends with Catalan writers and artists and got to discover more about the history and culture of this small corner. The Albera Mountains, that extend from the High Pyrenees towards the sea, falling away towards the coast at the northern end of the Costa Brava, are home to many Neolithic remains, notably standing stones (menhirs) and a profusion of burial chambers. I am very fond of a burial chamber, although I have no wish to be buried in one.
There were many Jews in this part of Spain before the expulsions of 1492. Many of them converted at that time, and there is a widespread belief that Catalans carry a significant charge of Sephardic blood, whatever that means. Blood is blood. There are no races, only ideas about races, which are mostly based on wrong information or the contrasting prejudices of boastfulness (e.g. a proud Celt) and bigotry (too many examples to cite) . In any case, I like the idea of a dedicated ‘Village of Jews’ in the heart of the Alberas, on the edge of the Cap de Creus.
- Further back in time, Hannibal must have crossed these hills on his way to Rome from Carthage. With his many elephants. I find the thought staggering. How did the Celto-Iberian tribespeople view these enormous lumbering beasts and their fierce drivers? The thought led to notes towards a poem a few years ago, not one that I have ever thought to publish, but perhaps it contains the germ of another, better poem, which I will write one day:
Elephants passed this way. The children, once their initial terror had passed, stared big-eyed, while clutching their mothers’ skirts, pointing at the swinging trunks as the beasts lumbered across cornfields.
Warriors rode on the elephants, but paid scant attention to the villagers who lined this section of their route.
What were the elephants doing in this well-tended land? Where were their riders’ leading them?
It was said by some that they were heading towards a distant war.
Why would an elephant go to war?
Because they are driven there by the riders.
But how? The elephants are so big and strong. The riders are so puny.
The elephants go where they are driven because that is what they are accustomed to.
The elephants so large.
The riders so small.
The children of this hillside village will tell the tale of the elephants to their grandchildren. It will become myth.
The elephants will never be seen again. They will cross the mountain pass and head into the plains beyond, until they become an improbable vision on the horizon. Specks on a vast green canvass.
The elephants will not return.
Sorting through photos on my laptop, intending to send some off for printing, I come across two pictures from February this year, on a trip to Mombacho, in Nicaragua. They are of a very poor quality, but on recognizing them I remember the expression of exhilaration on the faces of the bareback riders.
We had been delivered to the volcano, ascending through a tropics of livid growth, lush greenery, past the coffee plantations, up into the cloud forest; seen the salamanders and monstrous beetles and butterflies and the rare orchids, one of which, Mombachensis, is named after this mountain. Then the long drive down, and as we finally hit the flatlands, two boys, one around ten years old, the other younger, appear out of the bush on horseback. The boys ride bareback and are shoeless, and they are grinning and shouting and yahooing. Their exuberance is contagious even through the windows of the minibus. For a few seconds they are galloping alongside us, before the driver accelerates away. By the time I have my phone out they have fallen behind, and the young riders through the rear window are nothing more than shapes in the road, the sun behind them, the distance between us growing.
Walking in the Black Mountains I find a dead lizard, belly-up on the gorse. What is it doing here? It is a surprising lizard. I am walking along a long ridge of moorland, with the Ewyas Valley to my right and the Grwyne Fawr reservoir (see picture) to my left.
I have never seen a lizard here before, and I grew up nearby, and spent much of my childhood and teen years tramping around these hills. Are they even indigenous to this part of the world, to these islands? In my mind the lizard should live in more southerly zones.
These mountains lie beneath international flight paths. Is it possible the lizard was hitching a lift on an aircraft, lodged inside a crevice in the undercarriage or wheel-well, and was dislodged during the flight, falling many thousands of feet to land in a heap of gorse on the wide stretch of moorland marked on ordnance survey map 161 simply as ‘Y Fan’? Did it climb on board in some sunny lizard-friendly country only to be cruelly ejected over Wales?
I put it in my pocket, and when I get home its tail has broken off, which is upsetting. I place the two parts of the lizard on a sheet of paper to photograph, and try and put the broken-off piece of lizard back where it belongs, but you can see the crack in its tail. Checking out the website ‘Reptiles and Amphibians of the UK’ I discover that ‘you may find one almost anywhere from gardens, heathland, wooded glades, disused railway tracks, open meadows to the banks of ditches and along hedgerows’. They are also a protected species, and it is therefore an offence to kill, harm or injure them, sell or trade them in any way.
I have to confess, that my lizard bears a close resemblance to the male viviparous lizard (left) in the illustration below:
The viviparous or common lizard is one of the three lizard species native to the UK, the other two being the sand lizard and the slow worm, but it is with some reluctance that I abandon the lizard-stuck-to-the-undercarriage-or-trapped-in-the-wheel-well of a plane theory. Does this reflect a need always to prefer an obscure or exotic explanation when a more straightforward one is available?