Tag Archives: Patrick Leigh Fermor

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

2 Jun
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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 also 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 2000 collection of prose poems, Walking on Bones, 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.

On getting lost

24 Aug

wandering

‘For [Virginia] Woolf, getting lost was not a matter of geography so much as identity, a passionate desire, even an urgent need, to become no one and anyone, to shake off the shackles that remind you who you are, who others think you are.’

Having finally got around to reading Rebecca Solnit’s fine book A Field Guide to Getting Lost, I am left wondering how come it took me so long. Not only to find the book, but to find a writer who has reached conclusions – or striven towards them, because a conclusion closes things off and Solnit likes to leave things open to mutation and redirection – that are so much in harmony with my own. I am reminded of that sense of excitement described (in an earlier post) by Patrick Leigh Fermor of ‘realising that nobody in the world knew where he was’, echoed in Solnit’s words: ‘Nights alone in motels in remote western towns where I know no one and no one I know knows where I am’. This is not solipsism, nor even a desire to escape; it is, properly speaking, a contentment merely to be where one is, when one is, without roots, without identity, without destination. Something very attractive to anyone who has ever suffered inclinations for the state that Buddhism calls unbeing, but wants to get there without putting in the long hours of back-straining, balls-breaking meditation.

Wandering, being lost, is a way of losing yourself. As Solnit reminds us, it’s not about being lost but about trying to lose yourself:

‘“Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance – nothing more,” says . . . Walter Benjamin. “But to lose oneself in a city – as one loses oneself in a forest – that calls for quite a different schooling.” To lose oneself: a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away. In Benjamin’s terms, to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. And one does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender, a psychic state achievable through geography.’

 

 

 

 

The last digression of Patrick Leigh Fermor

7 Jun

 

 

Patrick Leigh Fermor, circa 1934

Patrick Leigh Fermor, circa 1934

 

Reading the final ‘long awaited’ – which in this instance meant waiting for the Death of the Author in 2011 at the age of 96 – third volume of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s account of his 1934 trek across Europe, three questions occur to me about the inability of PLF to complete and publish the book while still alive.

1)   the accumulation of digressions (both of writing and in life); indeed what amounted to PLF’s compulsion to digress (of itself no bad thing);

2)   his failure of memory, aided and abetted by the loss of certain of the relevant notebooks;

3)   an inability to contemplate the end of his journey which must, by some not-so-strange interior logic, also mean the end of his life.

An article by Daniel Mendelsohn in the current issue of The New York Review of Books also suggests a combination of factors, most particularly the digressions that formed such a substantial part of Paddy’s life and work. “We shall never get to Constantinople like this,” the author announces in a meta-textual aside, which constitutes “a humorous acknowledgement . . of a helpless penchant for digressions literal and figurative . . .”

Indeed, “the author’s chattiness, his inexhaustible willingness to be distracted, his susceptibility to detours geographical, intellectual, aesthetic, and occasionally amorous constitute, if anything, an essential and self-conscious component of the style that has won him such an avid following.”

The naivety and sheer joy of unfettered travel; the “ecstasy” that Paddy describes on “realising that nobody in the world knew where he was” – a sensation, as Mendelssohn points out, that would be practically impossible for travellers today, but which I recall from my own wanderings in the 1980s as having provoked a similarly feverish sense of total liberation; the wonderful lists that pepper his writing, eliciting new tastes and new sensations and a constant hunger to celebrate life as fully as possible; his unerring ability to stir in the reader a desire to write – which to me constitutes a failsafe criterion of all good writing; and finally – almost because of its flaws – and certainly because of what we know to have transpired in the two earlier volumes, and the unbearable anticipation of the thing – which was like a Sword of Damocles for PLF in later years – all of these help to make this book one of the most enjoyable reading experiences of the year thus far. While reading it too, I am more conscious than I was during the preceding two volumes of Paddy’s tendency to confabulate. At more than one point Paddy confesses that he cannot truly remember what happened next, but continues anyway, and even interjects passages of outrageous fantasy to spice up the story. A quotation from Javier Marías’ novel, The Infatuations, comes to mind:

“Everything becomes a story and ends up drifting about in the same sphere, and then it’s hard to differentiate between what really happened and what is pure invention. Everything becomes a narrative and sounds fictitious even if it’s true.”

Like Mendelsohn, I found The Broken Road’s incompleteness, paradoxically, to be more fitting than any neatly circumscribed ending that the author might have engineered. After so much deep description, after so many early mornings waking by the roadside with a sense of the sheer limitless possibility of the unfinished journey, after so much continuous pointless peregrination, any kind of ‘arrival’ would only have been a let-down.

While listing, above, the three reasons for the unfinished nature of the trilogy, a fourth, not entirely facetious option came to mind. Paddy famously never referred to the ultimate destination of his journey as Istanbul, but as Constantinople. Since ‘Constantinople’ did not exist under that name (nor had it, strictly speaking, since 1453), Paddy was never going to arrive. Instead we are allowed to share with him the nostalgia (which he shares with Cavafy) for a broken Hellenic world, for the ghosts of Byzantium, and a burgeoning sense of the terror that was about to descend on Europe in the years immediately following his journey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Three things I learned from Cavafy

20 Feb
Cavafy

C.P. Cavafy (from the Cavafy archive)

For a long time, while I was tramping around southern Europe, escaping the collective embarrassment that was Britain in the 1980s, I carried with me the poems of CP Cavafy. Other books I picked up and discarded along the way, but Cavafy, in one edition or another, stayed with me for much of the decade. I forget the precise circumstances that led to me making this choice, but most likely it was not a choice at all; I suspect the book was dropped into my bag by a passing sprite, concerned for the welfare of an ephebe like myself, setting out into solitary exile to learn, among other things, the road of excess and the skills of guile and trickery. It would suit my story if this were the case, but the truth is I had been reading Cavafy since I was sixteen, and once he had become a staple of my travels, I didn’t feel properly equipped without him. A slim volume, joined during those early years by Borges’ Fictions and Calvino’s Invisible Cities. These three books had three things in common: they were all small-scale and dense; they all subverted familiar stylistic mannerisms; and they were all conceived in the element of mercury. One thing I didn’t know then was that forty years later I would still be reading Cavafy, with more curiosity than ever.

If we are lucky, we get the writers we deserve, and at the right time of life. Reading Cavafy at a young age nurtured in me the then enthralling (but now merely fashionable) notion that time is not a linear construct, but rather resembles a shifting, mutable state in which past and present might be accessed simultaneously. Cavafy’s poetry, as Patrick Leigh Fermor once wrote, skilfully interweaves time and myth and reality, allowing for a particular kind of mutability, an ability to flit between perceptive modes that, once grasped, will stay with the reader always. If that sounds grandiose, I would like to clarify: there is no distinction in these poems – I would like to say in life, also – between what is imagined and the literal or mechanistic world of everyday understanding, and we must appreciate that this is essential to a proper appraisal of Cavafy. There is no point in conceding to the sordid demand for what ‘really happened’, claiming that any other version is a fantasy or a dream, and that reality is ‘out there’, the other side of the window, any more than one can discern, in Cavafy’s work, between the literal Alexandria and the one held in his imagination. In Cavafy’s poetic world the two are one and they merge, diverge and re-converge continually.

When I was eighteen I spent a summer living in an abandoned shepherd’s hut on a hillside overlooking the Libyan sea in southern Crete, near the tiny village of Keratokambos. Reading outside one evening, I heard an exchange of voices. In the near distance, some way above me, a man and a woman were calling to each other, each voice lifting with a strange and powerful vibrancy across the gorge that lay between one flank of the mountain and the next. Only the nearer figure, the man, was visible, and his voice seemed to rebound off the wall of a chasm, half a mile away. The woman remained out of sight, but her voice likewise drifted across the gorge, with crystalline clarity. There were perhaps a dozen exchanges: and then silence. I listened, spellbound. And that brief exchange, that shouted conversation, with its strange sounds, the tension between the voices, the exhalations and long vowels echoing off the sides of the mountain, would haunt me for years, haunts me still. They seemed to me to be speaking across time, that man and woman. Their ancestors, or possibly they themselves, had been having that conversation, exchanging those same sounds, for millennia. It was, for me, a lesson in the durability of human culture and at the same time, the incredible fragility of our lives; the conversation, the calling across the chasm, represented our ultimately solitary and unique chance at communication with a presence beyond ourselves. It was the vocal correlative of a strange sensation that I had experienced since first arriving in Crete: everywhere I went I was walking on bones, walking on the bones of the dead; and now I was hearing the echo of their voices as well.

In ‘Ionic’, translated more recently by Daniel Mendelsohn as ‘Song of Ionia’, Cavafy sums up an exemplary moment, suggesting that despite the destruction of their monuments and statues, the old gods still dart among the hills on the coast of Ionia (today’s western Anatolia), and it concludes with the lines:

 

When an August morning dawns over you,

your atmosphere is potent with their life,

and sometimes a young ethereal figure

indistinct, in rapid flight,

wings across your hills.

 

Here, the ‘young ethereal figure’ is surely Hermes. He is, after all, the winged god, and the god of transition and boundaries, and therefore more than likely to be seen at dawn, in the breach between night and day. Perhaps the Hermes association is personal, owing to the fact that in my experience, Hermes, god of travellers, was almost always the one who came to sort out the mess after Dionysos had wreaked his havoc. It seems likely, according to Daniel Mendelsohn’s wonderfully thorough notes that Cavafy, too, was thinking of Hermes, although I did not know this when I first read the poem.

That the past cohabits eternally with the present is a specifically Cavafian notion, and this subversion of linear time was the first thing I learned from his poetry. The second was his unique conceptualisation of place, in relation to the city with which his name has become ineluctably associated, Alexandria. As Edmund Keeley points out, Cavafy was the first of his contemporaries (woh included Yeats, Pound, Joyce and Eliot in the English-speaking world) to ‘project a coherent poetic image of the mythical city that shaped his vision’. His poetic vision – even when concerned with matters of erotic desire, which it often is – involves a constant pursuit of ‘the hidden metaphoric possibilities, the mysterious invisible processions, of the reality one sees in the literal city outside one’s window’. Cavafy takes the idea of the city and expands upon it so that it carries mythic significance. The poem he chose to begin his first pamphlet of work, distributed among friends, is, significantly, ‘The City’. The poem is addressed to one whose life is bound by literal time and literal thought while, by contrast, the poet-narrator lives according to other parameters, which are timeless. Like other great poets Cavafy mythologises a personal landscape so that it becomes universal:

 

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.

This city will always pursue you.

You’ll walk the same streets, grow old

in the same neighbourhoods, turn grey in these same houses.

You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:

there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.

Now that you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,

you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.

 

The poet’s difficulties over the composition of ‘The City’ – fifteen years lapsing between the first draft in 1894 and publication – are perhaps a reflection of Cavafy’s uncertainty over whether or not he wanted to settle permanently in Alexandria, or himself ‘find some other city’, like the protagonist of his poem. ‘What trouble, what a burden small cities are’, the forty-four year-old poet complained in an unpublished note, dated 1907. He apparently made up his mind to stay by 1910, the year that ‘The City’ was published. It would seem that around this time he experienced an epiphany or at least a shift in his trajectory as a writer, deciding that his destiny lay with Alexandria, and that he would probably never leave. The choice of ‘The City’ as the lead poem in published selections of his work is as intentional as, say, Wallace Stevens’ insistence on ‘Earthy Anecdote’ opening all collected editions of his poetry.       Alexandria became, from that point on, the principle vehicle for his poetic imagination. Conscious of this, he again addresses the theme of leaving the city – actually of being abandoned by the personified city – in ‘The God Abandons Anthony’, when the speaker admonishes the Roman general, who was closely associated with the god Dionysos, at the moment of departure:

 

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear

an invisible procession going by

with exquisite music, voices,

don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,

work gone wrong, your plans

all proving deceptive – don’t mourn them uselessly:

as one long prepared, and full of courage,

say goodbye to her, to Alexandria who is leaving.

Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say

it was a dream, your ears deceived you:

don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these . . .

 

It is this self-degradation with false hopes, this yearning for the sacred centre, the object of desire that can never be attained, the love that will never be requited, which makes of all of us an Anthony. Whenever one thinks one has arrived at one’s destination, then will be the time to move on. There is no way of making peace with any objective, real or imagined, until one has first made peace with oneself, and the process is self-perpetuating, and the cities mount up. ‘The more you travel’ as the Turkish poet Adnan Özer writes, ‘the more cities you will find within yourself’.

So, the second thing I learned from Cavafy was that the city is a cypher for the self, reflecting our fragmented or multiple selves. We know that Cavafy is speaking of Alexandria, but we also know that the city is a state of mind – one’s personal predicament, and the human predicament also – from which we can never be free.

The third thing I learned from Cavafy is that we are always at risk of misreading the signs and portents that surround us: arrogance and self-satisfaction dim our vision and make us ridiculous. It is a favourite theme of Cavafy’s, most often delivered with a profound sense of irony. Let us consider the poem ‘Nero’s deadline’:

 

Nero wasn’t worried at all when he heard

what the Delphic Oracle had to say:

“Beware the age of seventy-three.”

Plenty of time to enjoy himself.

He’s thirty. The deadline

the god has given him is quite enough

to cope with future dangers.

Now, a little tired, he’ll return to Rome –

but wonderfully tired from that journey

devoted entirely to pleasure:

theatres, garden-parties, stadiums . . .

evenings in the cities of Achaia . . .

and, above all, the delight of naked bodies . . .

So much for Nero. And in Spain Galba

secretly musters and drills his army –

Galba, now in his seventy-third year.

 

At a superficial reading, the conceited, megalomaniac Nero, cosseted by the apparently safe verdict of the oracle, is undone by his comprehensive misunderstanding of its hidden message. But as Mendelssohn points out, the poem does more than make fun of Nero’s self-satisfied complacency, it puts forward Galba as the avenging hero, come from obscurity in his old age to save Rome. However, Galba, in turn, was a disaster for Rome, his greed and lack of judgement causing him to be murdered seven months after his accession as Emperor, on the orders of Marcus Salvius Otho, a fellow-conspirator against Nero. (Otho, incidentally, lasted only three months as Emperor before stabbing himself in the heart). ‘Nero’s deadline’ offers a cinematic vignette of power’s corrupting influence. And by omitting Galba’s own downfall – assuming, as he so often does, that the interested reader, if curious enough, will find out – Cavafy adds a layer of hidden significance to a piece that already works as a denunciation of grandiosity and hubris. The poem reveals betrayal lying beneath betrayal, all of it stemming from overreaching and a smug belief in one’s own achievements, only for each incumbent to meet with a grisly end.

I wanted to write this essay in order to find out why Cavafy has held such a longstanding fascination for me as a reader (and therefore as a writer, since the two activities are composite: we read, at least in part, in order to learn, or to steal). I have discussed three things that are particularly important in my own understanding of his work. But there is something else, greater than the sum of its parts, which asserts this man’s comprehensive poetic vision. Cavafy was a poet who, throughout his life, was – in Seferis’ words – “constantly discovering things that are new and very valuable”. It may be that this capacity for discovery, a reflexivity regarding his personal as well as a collective Hellenic past, his subtly revelatory intelligence, are somehow transmitted onward, and we, as readers, are infected by his own enthusiasms. “He left us with the bitter curiosity that we feel about a man who has been lost to us in the prime of life,” wrote Seferis. This is not simply on account of his relatively small output, but because of its seeming unity of construction and purpose, its sense of unfulfilled possibility, and the poet’s curiosity at being in a world in which past and present merge in an invisible procession.

Translations from the Greek are by Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard in C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems, Chatto & Windus, 1990. The references to Daniel Mendelssohn concern the notes to his own translations in C.P. Cavafy: Complete Poems, Harper Press, 2013.

First published  as ‘An Invisible Procession: How reading Cavafy changed my life’, in Poetry Review, 103:3   Autumn 2013.