The Child and the Dark

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I wrote this guest blog for ‘Make Your Own Rabbit Hole: A Blog About Recovering Creativity’. You can read the original version here.

I have a vivid childhood memory of sitting on the back steps at my grandparents’ house, listening to a siren whirring in the distance, and being gripped by a sudden terror.

I remember the warmth of the bricks and the lemon-tree scent. I remember counting the crooked slats of the back gate over and over, through tear-blurred eyes. And I remember the unspeakable horror creeping through every bone in my body, as I convinced myself that the siren was meant for my parents, that some terrible accident had occurred, and that they were never coming back.

Granted, I was probably a slightly neurotic child. I must have been around nine or so—those awkward twilight years between childhood and early adolescence. Life at that age constantly switches between comforting childish reassurance and the harsh realities of the adulthood you are teetering on the edge of. I had an overactive imagination coupled with a deeply sensitive, anxious personality, and the terrors my mind threw at me were both laughable and very, very real.

When my parents turned up twenty minutes or so later, delayed by a traffic jam, I was quite teary with relief. But I’ve never forgotten the terrible impact of that moment, and how it somehow sprang from the deep, unconscious wells of infancy, where fear lies coiled in the dark corners of the psyche, waiting, waiting.

The Monsters are Calling: Darkness in children’s literature

Recently, I’ve rediscovered a long-held passion for children’s writing and illustration. What seemed like a pipe-dream is becoming more real as I explore the ins and outs of the children’s publishing world, devouring the works of my favourite writers and illustrators. The deeper I venture, the more convinced I am of the incredible importance of children’s literature.

Fiona Burrows Illustration, 2015

One of the things I’ve noticed is the tendency towards conservatism, corporatisation, commodification, or what I’ve heard described as the ‘pinky aesthetics’ of the current children’s market. A large proportion of shelf-space seems to be devoted to movie spin-offs, homogenous, celebrity-authored, product-oriented books. Or worse still, the ubiquitous sea of pink, glitterfied, princessy books set aside for little girls, as if little girls could not possibly want to read about monsters or adventures or knights or getting dirty. (I had a genuine sword and shield from a medieval English castle when I was 5, and loved squelching around in the mud and dirt as much as any of my brothers. I liked princesses, but I also liked seeing them get eaten by dragons. I’ll bet most little girls do).

Of course, the idea of children’s books being censored or politicised is not new. Many of our favourite children’s classics have been banned for reasons which often sound vaguely silly and sometimes outright ridiculous, as in the case of The Diary of Anne Frank:

“Most of the concerns were about sexually explicit material… One record dating to 1983 from an Alabama textbook committee said the book was ‘a real downer’ and called for its rejection from school.” (The Washington Post, 2010)

Putting aside the ‘downer’ that is Frank’s devastatingly powerful Holocaust narrative, the banning of children’s books is still going strong. The idea still persists that children need to be protected from the harsh realities of the world. Maybe this leads to the Disneyfication that we see today. Fewer publishers are willing to take a risk on books deemed to be ‘inappropriate’—those dealing too closely with death, sex, drugs, trauma, mental health or adult concepts.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, 1962, Joan Aiken, Illustration by Rohan Eason

Darkness in children’s books can still be found though, especially if you’re a voracious reader like I was as a child. I remember how moved I felt reading Judith Kerr’s semi-autobiographical novel about Nazi Germany, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. I absolutely loved Joan Aiken, who wrote about children being chased by wolves and sold into slavery (The Wolves of Willoughby Chase), or escaping the clutches of a vicious Queen who attained immortality by killing and drinking the blood of young girls (The Stolen Lake). I had a strong attachment to the Little House series, with its screaming panthers and blizzards and deadly scarlet fever. I was obsessed with the Moomintroll books and their complex, ambiguous darkness: the lonely, terrifying Groke with her trail of ice still seems to me one of the most evocative expressions of female depression I’ve come across. And I loved the beauty and brutality of fairytales; I still do.

In fact, as an adult, I continue to be drawn to children’s books that deal in darkness and complexity. Two of my recent picturebook purchases have been Stein Eric Lunde and Øyvind Torseter’s quietly devastating My Father’s Arms are a Boat, which deals with the love and loss of a mother, and Nadia Wheatley and Armin Greder’s sparse, beautiful Flight, which transforms the Nativity into a refugee family fleeing tanks and the guns. Poignant, heartbreaking and, sadly, very relevant right now.

My Father’s Arms are a Boat, 2013, Stein Erik Lunde & Øyvind Torseter

I own Margaret Wild and Freya Blackwood’s stunning picturebook The Treasure Box, also about fleeing from a war-torn home, and, incidentally, book-burning.

The Treasure Box, 2013, Margaret Wild and Freya Blackwood

Patrick Ness’ and Jim Kay’s A Monster Calls (based on Siobhan Dowd’s writing) is about a child whose mother is dying from terminal cancer. And many of our favourite Young Adult (YA) books delve unapologetically into the agonies of adolescence: who can forget the subversive attraction of a Judy Blume novel, or the deep resonance Looking for Alibrandi or John Marsden’s Tomorrow series had for young Australians discovering their own identity, sexuality and place in the world. At least in YA fiction, the darkness seems to be slightly more acceptable.

A Monster Calls, 2011, Patrick Ness & Jim Kay

And actually, children are a lot more intelligent than we tend to give them credit for. They can absorb complex themes and detect metaphors, irony, satire. Darkness can also be treated with humour, of course. The one and only Edward Gorey created a whole alphabet of accidentally-killed-children (The Gashlycrumb Tinies) and illustrated them in his wry, curious style: darkly funny, disturbing and tongue-firmly-in-cheek.

The Gashlycrumb Tinies, 1963, Edward Gorey

I feel sorry for little Neville, dying of ennui. There are probably many more children like him, suffocating under the blandness of a literature which thinks that its purpose is to dictate, moralise, sell to, or mislead the young. Or, almost as unforgivingly, pretend to them that the world is nothing but lollipops and rainbows and insipid, unthreatening critters doing gaggingly boring things.

Am I being way too cynical here? Of course there is a place for sunshine and fairyfloss and unicorns in kidlit, just as there is a place for joy and euphoria and optimism in adulthood. But to pretend that there is nothing but those things is akin to saying that the rest of our experience; pain, anger, disappointment; war, poverty, disease; neglect, trauma; should be hidden, swept under the rug.

And hiding away the things that hurt—the dark things that make us such complex beings—teaches children that such feelings are inappropriate.

Taming the Wild Things

The truth is, our childhoods do contain darkness. Children experience loss, pain, trauma and terror just as adults do. We instinctively want to protect them from this. We yearn for what we nostalgically remember as the ‘innocence’ of our own childhoods, where the days were sun-filled and carefree, and worries and anxieties were as far away from us as the planets circling in the vast nothingness above. But, as idyllic as our childhoods might seem from the adult end of the telescope, the darkness was still very much there. And that, more than anything, is why children’s literature should acknowledge the dark things, bring them into the light; where they, along with our other childhood demons, can be successfully confronted.

Maurice Sendak, who experienced his fair share of both childhood demons and book-banning, said,

“From their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions; fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, they continually cope with frustrations as best they can. And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things.”

Sendak didn’t believe in misleading or lying to children. He celebrated their dark impulses, their wildness. He acknowledged the great anger, injustice, rage and indignation of our childhoods, and he gave it back to us as literature which reflected our wildest, scariest, most hidden desires. That is why, despite being relentlessly attacked and occasionally banned, Where the Wild Things Are continues to be a best-seller.

Where the Wild Things Are, 1963, Maurice Sendak

Neil Gaiman has also argued for the place of darkness in children’s literature:

“I think if you are protected from dark things then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up. I think it is really important to show dark things to kids — and, in the showing, to also show that dark things can be beaten, that you have power. Tell them you can fight back, tell them you can win. Because you can — but you have to know that.

And for me, the thing that is so big and so important about the darkness is [that] it’s like in an inoculation… You are giving somebody darkness in a form that is not overwhelming — it’s understandable, they can envelop it, they can take it into themselves, they can cope with it.

And, it’s okay, it’s safe to tell that story — as long as you tell them that you can be smart, and you can be brave, and you can be tricky, and you can be plucky, and you can keep going.”

And they lived happily ever after. From Hansel & Gretel, 2014, Neil Gaiman & Lorenzo Mattotti

You can keep going. How important that phrase is. As Gaiman says, letting children experience darkness in a form that doesn’t overwhelm them—so they can play with it, explore it, understand it on their own terms—is essential, because there are dark things in life. As adults, we come face-to-face with them. And what then?

“Nothing has changed since Little Red Riding Hood faced the big bad wolf. What frightens us today is exactly the same sort of thing that frightened us yesterday. It’s just a different wolf.” –Alfred Hitchcock

The wolves of childhood still prowl our daily lives as adults. Whether it’s the howling of depression or grief or our own paling insignificance, we must confront it. We must, as Gaiman says, keep going. The things that scared us as children, those spectres of terror, take on an awful solidity in adult life.

“I remember my own childhood vividly… I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.”—Maurice Sendak.

We all know terrible things. My moment of groundless terror still haunts me: it’s become my fear of loss, of grief, of losing what I love most. But other wolves have begun to prowl too. Wolves that are scarier, bigger, more malicious than ever. The more research I do about children, about child psychology, the more time I spend with my beautiful, creative, imaginative nieces and god-kids and friends’ kids, the more I feel the wolves stalking.

A Different Wolf

Which brings me to the thing I really want to discuss: something that lies, coiled, poisonous, in the dark corners of my psyche.

I’m talking about the horrific revelations that keep coming to light about the way our government is treating the most vulnerable and innocent in its care: children in immigration detention. Nearly everything I read about this brings me to tears. In fact I’m writing this now with the tears rolling down my cheeks. I feel powerless, ineffective, useless against this type of vicious, systematic, politicised evil. I cannot comprehend the huge cognitive dissonance required to support, or even to ignore, this policy. But I know that it arises out of fear: fear of the other, fear of losing control. It is fear that causes hate, mistrust, hardness, ignorance, intolerance, arrogance or apathy: a fear that hasn’t been acknowledged or explored or brought out into the light.

I feel exhausted by the realisation of what we are up against. Almost daily I see the words ‘humanitarian’ or ‘compassionate’ being used as insults. Somehow, kindness has become ‘weakness’. The right to free speech has become the right to bigotry, xenophobia and intolerance. Anonymity has become the opportunity to abandon human decency. Decisions are made for political and economic gain, as if money and power are the only meaningful factors in our society.

The darkness appears to be closing in. The wolves are howling on every side.

But, as it is for children, our darkness can be a gift too. Because it makes us stand up and act. If we know from the stories we’ve read that darkness exists, then we also know that dark things can be beaten.

We have power, we can fight back, we can win—but we have to know that. We have to keep going.

We cannot ignore these atrocities any longer. We cannot sit back in our complacency, and dismiss them because they don’t touch us or the ones we love. The despair these children face is indefensible; the wolves are so close that they can see bared teeth…

“Our son is frightened to go outside. He thinks he will be dragged into the forest by an evil spirit and the animals will get him.” (Father of 3 year old child, Construction Camp Detention Centre, Christmas Island, 16 July 2014)

Knowing that these children are being deprived of their childhoods in our name, the name of our leaders and in the name of our country, should be the most real and pressing terror of our adulthood. So we have to be brave. Face up to the darkness. Fight it. Keep going.

Pictures drawn by children detained on Christmas Island, given to the Australian Human Rights Commission as part of the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention 2014. Australian Human Rights Commission Flickr Page, CC BY-ND

Live your life, live your life, live your life

In Maurice Sendak’s very last interview, he once again confronted his own childhood darkness and grief, his fear of death:

“I cry a lot because I miss people. I cry a lot because they die and I can’t stop them. They leave me and I love them more.”

Like me and my moment on the steps, the realisation that darkness exists—that death and grief are inescapable—is always going to be difficult, whether we are nine years old or ninety. Sometimes it threatens to overwhelm us. But that’s what literature gives to us: it tells us to keep going. Why should we deny children the chance to discover that for themselves?

Besides, without darkness there would be no light. So, with that in mind, I want to finish on a note that encompasses all the darkness, joy, pain and love of a life lived in full. Do yourself a favour and watch this video:

It might make you cry, but it will also make you smile. Much like life itself.

Fiona

You can find my illustration and more of my work on children’s literature work at fionaburrows.com

DriveRabbitLogo_Block_reversed_600x600If you are concerned about this issue, you can send a book or a letter to a child in Australian immigration detention through the Befriend a Child in Detention project. You might also like to read Rabbit Hole #22 — “Terror Australis: Children in Detention”.

Make Your Own Rabbit Hole
is a blog about recovering creativity: makeyourownrabbithole.com

This site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Cover image (c) Copyright, F. Burrows, 2015.

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In Bed

Jozsef Rippl-Ronai, Lady-in-bed.

Jozsef Rippl-Ronai, Lady-in-bed.

“I have tried in most of the available ways to escape my own migrainous heredity … but I still have migraine. And I have learned now to live with it, learned when to expect it, how to outwit it, even how to regard it, when it does come, as more friend than lodger.”

-Joan Didion, ‘In Bed’, 1968

The first time I read Joan Didion’s essay ‘In Bed’, it made me cry. The force of this outburst of emotion was so sudden that it felt almost silly. I had been meandering about the web, clicking from blog to article to discussion board in the same sort of erratic way as the neurons branching off in my brain, and had stumbled on the essay almost by accident.

The small voice in my head, so adept at berating me, laughed and said I should get it together. But I didn’t, and continued to read with the tears streaming down my face. Joan Didion, writer, journalist, self-described “shy, bookish child” (according to Wikipedia), was describing her migraines. And I have never been able to write about mine.

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Listening to someone talk about their maladies is pretty boring. Grown-up life, at least the kind I would’ve dreamt about as a shy, bookish child myself, is supposed to be interesting. You’re supposed to have a career, ambition, money, success, status. And you’re supposed to want those things (at least, that’s what we are fed by the glossies). But these days I find that a lot of my grown-up life revolves around the merry-go-round of grumbling that work, chores, rent, insecurity, bad diet and the resulting lethargy involve. We’re busy. We’re time-poor. We’re under immense pressure, constantly connecting, updating, checking in, burning out, so we earn and earn and spend and spend and desperately chase some kind of relief. We treat ourselves to new clothes, the latest technology, pricey dinners, overseas holidays, all as a reward for working so hard. But in order to pay for these treats, we need to work. Hard. What a catch-22.

In any case, a life of grumbling about work and money and stress seems to be quite the norm these days. Read your Facebook feed on a Monday morning and you’ll find plenty of evidence of that. Maybe we grumble because we want someone to hear us in the vague hope that it will help cure us, somehow. But we don’t always seem to listen to each other.

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In 1980, Barbara Grizzutti Harrison wrote a scathing review of Didion’s work, calling her a “neurasthenic Cher” whose “subject is always herself”. Harsh, right? Harrison said about Didion’s writing, “What is there to do but wait, curtains drawn and migrainous, contemplating — if we are lucky enough to have them — our roses?”. You can hear the sarcasm twisting behind those words. I can’t help but feel that Harrison must be one of those types that Didion describes as having “the accusing eye of someone who has never had a headache”:

Why not take a couple of aspirin,’ the unafflicted will say from the doorway, or “I’d have a headache, too, spending a beautiful day like this inside with all the shades drawn,” Didion writes.

As all of us who are neurasthenic Chers no doubt know, those types stare at us from many a doorway.

flourish_nobgAs it turns out though, knowing all this doesn’t stop me from experiencing the acute sense of guilt that comes every time I talk about my migraines. I was diagnosed with severe chronic migraines about 6 years ago. In fact, I’ve had them for 18 years, sometimes lessening and sometimes worsening, but increasingly (and ironically) exacerbated by the medication I have to take to simply get through a week seeming vaguely normal. Less violent early on, treatable with panadol and a dark room, they escalated as I got older, until every over-the-counter painkiller lost effectiveness. I know the futility of trying to explain  ‘headaches’ to a GP whose schedule is 45 minutes behind time, and who looks at you so sternly when you try to articulate the problem that a pricking behind your eyes tells you that your only real option is defeated silence.

Medications are my lifesaver, and my downfall. More often than not, they will enable me to get through the day, do my work, do my chores, get by. When I wake up with that tell-tale throbbing in my temple, they help me face the prospect of a long day at work, talking to people, appearing normal. But in turn they ask for a high price, making the migraine rebound over and over, routinely coming back 24 to 36 hours later requiring more medication. It’s a cruel cycle. Although when your life has been controlled by migraine for so long, the switch to being controlled by medication doesn’t feel that different.

Every migraneur (the word feels weird to me, like an entrepeneur or a voyeur) knows what it’s like to be dismissed as having ‘just a headache’. As anyone who has had ‘just a headache’ can attest, it’s not the most pleasant of experiences. But migraines, and particularly the relentlessness of chronic migraines, are both devastatingly unpleasant, highly debilitating, and almost impossible to explain. In fact,

The World Health Organization did a study about conditions that have the highest disability severity… They used 22 indicator conditions in their Global Burden of Disease Study, and they selected four diseases that were the most disabling. They were acute psychosis, dementia, quadriplegia, and … the fourth one was severe migraine. (Everyday Health, 2008)

Most people wouldn’t think of migraine in the same sentence as dementia or quadriplegia, possibly because migraines are fairly common. They can affect approximately 15% of the population at some point in their lives, and up to 18% of women. About 1-2% of people experience them chronically, 10-15 days per month or more. Chronic migraines are highly co-morbid with depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions. They cause people to lose jobs, relationships, and friends, become reliant on medication, retreat from the world. As Didion said,

That no one dies of migraine seems, to someone deep into an attack, an ambiguous blessing.”

This, as dramatic as it sounds, rings true to me. It’s common to feel, in the midst of the most aggressive of them, that you would give anything for a release. The pain, when it’s not medicated, is violent, sudden, paralysing; whether you’re writhing at home in bed, vomiting on the side of the road in a bridesmaid’s dress, or sobbing in a co-workers office. The nausea that comes with it seems particularly unfair, not because it means you are stuck with your head over the toilet bowl, but because it means most oral medications are useless.

But I don’t think pain is the worst aspect of having chronic migraines. Pain, although recurring, does go away. The feeling of a deathly migraine lifting is associated with a lift in the spirits, an acute sense of relief and joy, even. Something like the sun coming out after hours or days of thunderstorms and black skies. No, it’s not the pain that’s the worst aspect of migraines. It’s the horrible, all-encompassing, irrational guilt that goes along with them.

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Luisa Casati- Man Ray

It’s a funny feeling writing about my experiences with migraines. On the one hand, it is such an ingrained part of me that I can hardly imagine the kind of person I would be without them. More sociable, probably. Possibly less anxious. But maybe also less grateful for the pleasure of an unblemished weekend, a sunny day spent outside, a night out. Maybe less creative, less driven. Didion talks about the ‘migrainous personality’, an idea which seems a little outdated on one hand, but on the other strikes an uncomfortable chord somewhere deep down for me: “Ambitious, inward, intolerant of error, rather rigidly organised, a perfectionist”. I love Didion’s response to the doctor who notices her hair is messy:

You don’t look like a migraine personality,” a doctor once said to me. “Your hair’s messy. But I suppose you’re a compulsive housekeeper.” Actually my house is kept even more negligently than my hair, but the doctor was right nonetheless: perfectionism can also take the form of spending most of a week writing and rewriting and not writing a single paragraph.”

My hair, and certainly my house (office, desk, bedroom) are unquestionably messy. I started writing this blog post over a month ago. The previous one was 4 months before that, and no doubt it will take me another 6 months for the next one. I too know the feeling of writing and rewriting and not writing a single paragraph. As a child I remember feeling deeply ashamed and anxious if I was told off, if I didn’t get the highest mark, or if I did something badly. Even though I can laugh about that now, in some ways that irrational fear remains. Failure is not an option. Giving up is not an option. But I don’t know whether this anxiety contributes to or simply stems from the “migrainousness” of my personality, and anyway, I don’t think it really matters. Stressing less might make life a bit easier, but it’s never going to make my migraines go away.

It’s the guilt of chronic migraines that lingers insidiously below and outside the physical pain. It’s impossible not to feel guilty for cancelling plans, for preferring to stay in, for avoiding noise, crowds, strong smells, for spending whole days in bed with the blinds drawn, for refusing a glass of wine at dinner, for missing out on long-awaited holidays. For ‘always complaining’ or ‘always feeling sick’. For asking for flexible working hours, or taking too many painkillers, or being introverted, unsociable, whingy, whiny, weak, lazy, unfortunate, narcissistic. The collection of adjectives my inner voice has gathered over the years is a large one.

But the worst of those is the sometimes implicit and sometimes explicit suggestion that you are bringing it on yourself, and if only you improved your diet/exercise/stress levels/water intake/medication/vitamin intake/wheat intake/posture, the headaches might miraculously disappear. Don’t get me wrong—I am always grateful to anyone who cares enough to offer their suggestions or advice. Knowing that there are people who share in or empathise with my pain is immeasaurably comforting. And who knows, maybe one day, one of those suggestions will help. God knows I’ve tried them all, and will continue to try them. But underneath it all, there is still that inescapable guilt:

It’s my fault.
I bring this on.
I have caused this.

I often wonder whether if I had a different medical condition, diabetes or epilepsy or something more physically apparent, I would still hear “If you just change your lifestyle it will go away”. Probably not, although I’m not quite sure why. Maybe it’s because migraines are mostly invisible, the pain is subjective, the impact hard to see.

Sometimes, the thing I wish I could hear from people is not a suggestion, or a solution, or a story. It’s simply: “Migraines? That must be really hard.”

William Utermohlen

Because the crappy thing is that no matter how much water I drink or vitamins I take or sun/activity/massages I do or don’t get, my migraines are not going to go away. They have been there, they are there, and they will still be there in the future. They’re a diagnosed neurological disorder, embedded in the structure of my brain, chronic, genetic, inherited, and, by implication, they are part of me. Whether I like them or not, whether I handle them or not, and whether I talk about them or not. And that’s why I understand what Didion says about learning how to accept them, how to understand them, and how to live with them. For better or worse, they make up who I am, and I must deal with them the best way I can. Sometimes I won’t be very good at that. Sometimes I will need to do things that other people won’t understand. I will need to put my health first. I will be a burden on those I love. I will miss out on doing things I care about. I will experience enormous guilt.

But I will acknowledge the guilt, accept it, and let it go.

And sometimes, as awkward and embarrassing as it is, I will have to write about them, because after all, as Didion says, when they come you must learn to treat them not as enemy, not as unpleasant lodger, not as demon, hijacker, or blackmailer.

When they come, you must learn to treat them as friend.

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(If you want to know more about migraines, this article is quite good:
The Emotional Pain of Migraines, Coping with the Frustration and Guilt

Gallery

A Rose Preserved in Snow

The waters were talking, weeping,
Under the white rosebays,
Under the red rosebays,
The waters were weeping, singing,
By the flowering myrtle,
Above the opaque waters.”
-Juan Ramon Jimenez, Generalife

“Granada is probably the most beautiful and haunting of all Spanish cities; an African paradise set under the Sierras like a rose preserved in snow… for here, on the scented hills above the green gorge of the darro, [we] found at last those phantoms of desire … and here, among the closed courts of orange trees and fountains, steeped in the langours of poetry and intrigue, [we] achieved for a while a short sweet heaven.”
-Laurie Lee, A Rose for Winter

“The round silence of night,
one note on the stave
of the infinite.

Ripe with lost poems,
I step naked into the street

A wild crowd of young breezes
over the river.”
-Federico Garcia Lorca

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Barcelona: Surreal City

The terrifying and edible beauty of Art Nouveau architecture.” –Salvador Dali

“The haunting of history is ever present in Barcelona. I see cities as organisms, as living creatures. To me, Madrid is a man and Barcelona is a woman. And it’s a woman who’s extremely vain.” –Carlos Ruiz Zafon

“What is admirable about the fantastic is that there is no longer anything fantastic: there is only the real.” ― André Breton

My visit to Barcelona had a touch of the surreal about it. I stayed for five days on La Rambla, right in the centre of everything that seems to happen all day and every day in the effervescent city, and every time I walked out of the hotel I felt as though Barcelona was slapping me in the face. But a nice slap, a sort of “wake up, look at me, take notice” slap. A playful, slightly coquetish slap. Barcelona, the ever-present tease, always seemed to be parading her colours and shapes and contours before me. They were bewitching, impossible to ignore, and she knew it.
flourish_nobgWalking down the middle of the vast pedestrian street had a circus-like rhythm to it. Every ten meters, a salesman was chirping some little toy they were trying to sell to tourists, giving the city an air of cartoonish hypercolour. Waiters standing outside restaurants were offering authentic ‘tapa’ just for you, come sit down, free aperitif! The steady hum of traffic was punctuated by hooting taxi horns and the beat of music drifting from windows and down alleys. And the people, oh the people. Seas of them, streams of them rushing by in blurred stop-motion. Face after face, tourists, locals, teenagers, men, women, all revolving past like a pageant of humanity, dark eyes, colourful piercings, ragged trousers, dyed blondes, wheeled suitcases, body paint, Louboutins. And stepping out of the solid wooden portico of the hotel, I was suddenly dragged into the current and swept along with them.
flourish_nobgIt’s impossible to think of Barcelona without thinking of colour, of form. Gaudi, the visual father of Barcelona, is everywhere; not just in the curves of a Art Deco facade or the fishscale tiles gleaming gold and orange on a distant roof, or the stunning Sagrada Familia, swathed and cobwebbed in netting and scaffolding which give it an air of fragile, crumbling beauty like an architectural Miss Haversham, sitting serenely over the city with a tiny, imperceptible gleam of insanity in her eyes. He’s in the coloured lines of towels and clothing draped sinuously over balconies in the Barceloneta Barrio, drying in the salty air. In the iron curves of street lamps, the circular flash of bicycle wheels, the vastness, the grandness, the touch of eccentricity in this city of hue and unexpected shape.

flourish_nobgArriving back to La Rambla one afternoon, I came across a massive, vibrant Gay Pride parade sprawled out over the roads and footpaths. Hundreds of people were marching, dressed up and waving flags, booming out heavy bass music from trucks that were crawling slowly down La Rambla, followed by groups of drummers, and hundreds more people were watching, following, shouting in the street and blowing kisses, everyone smiling at the spectacle and holding up iPhones to try to somehow bottle the captivating spirit of it. Once the parade had passed and the mesmerising beat was fading into a distant street, I was utterly surprised to run into another parade, coming the other way up the street. People who were dressed in Indian finery, glittering and swathed in the colours of spices, turmeric, saffron, paprika, and chanting to a hypnotic, rhythmic wail. It felt as if the whole of the city was out parading in the streets, draping themselves with the myriad colours of Barcelona and shouting out her joy in one loud, vibrant voice.

flourish_nobgWhile I was in Barcelona I also took a day trip to Figueres, Salvador Dali’s hometown and the setting of the famous Dali Theatre Museum. The guide warned us that Dali’s intention was to unsettle, to jolt people out of their city-stupor with the winding rooms and staircases, the strange unexpectedness. It was like being in a dream, albeit a dream that hundreds of other jostling tourists were also a part of. So really, a dream with the underlying hint of a nightmare. And I felt, walking through the mind of a madman who was perfectly and lucidly sane, that it was in some ways a microcosm of Barcelona itself.
The surreal city, dream-like, vibrant, slightly crazy, beckoning you with a wink and a mischievous grin to join in its wildness and its abandon.
We travel, initially, to lose ourselves, and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again—to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.” –Pico Iyer
And after all… what have you got to lose, except yourself?
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Down the old ways of time: Sardinia

“This land resembles no other place. Sardinia is something else. Enchanting spaces and distances to travel; nothing finished, nothing definitive. It is like freedom itself…

For us to go to Italy and to penetrate into Italy is like a most fascinating act of self-discovery–back, back down the old ways of time. Strange and wonderful chords awake in us, and vibrate again after many hundreds of years of complete forgetfulness.”
D.H. Lawrence

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I visited Sardinia for a conference; it wasn’t somewhere I would have thought of going otherwise. The conference was held at the university in Cagliari, a bustling town nestled by the southern Sardinian coast. It has a very different feel to France, although the same Mediterranean sunlight and blue skies lie over the city. In my four days there I ate traditional spaghetti with clams, watched from high above the city as the sun set silvery and clear behind the palms, and wandered through the narrow, cobbled streets of the Castello neighborhood where the buildings and the people both seem to have some sort of secret wisdom etched into their sun-hardened visages. One day, walking back to my B&B after a day at the conference, I found that the street I usually walked on had suddenly come alive. I felt an urge to write a poem, an urge which (unfortunately) only rarely strikes me these days. I strolled distractedly back down the steep road to the pensione on Vico dei Genovesi, thoughts and impressions tripping over themselves in my head, and sat down with a pen and paper. This is what came out. As far as poetry goes it’s still quite raw and unpolished… but then again, so is Sardinia.

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Viale Buon Cammino, Cagliari

The conference finished late today.

I walked down Buon Cammino,
where jacaranda blooms
hang pegged like rippling rows of babies’ socks,
and found, to my surprise,
a pair
of old Italian Nonnas perched
on nearly every park-bench that I passed.

It was almost 8; only an hour later than last
night. The sun
was still spreading in a sheet
across the crinkled bay

but they seemed to have appeared
from nowhere, these Nonnas,
congregating in the street.
Around their feet
fat pigeons pottered
with wrinkled necks,
clucking and chiding me for walking by.

I looked out at the city,
piled neatly far below like fresh laundry:

Cagliari.

(In Italian the name slides out
quick as slurping up spaghetti.)

The day was hot here too. Thin
white clouds were pressed against the sky,
flushed and sweaty
as cotton on moist skin,

but the Nonnas seemed content to sit
and soak in the Sardinian sun.
Some held rag-cloth bags;
one scolded her delinquent Collie
with a rolled newspaper;

and the haze
of chalk-pink walls
made the colours of their dresses
run.

* * *

By the time I got home
(isn’t it funny what home is
in a foreign country)
shadows were unfolding across the cobbles.

Both Nonnas and pigeons
had scattered back down narrow streets

and the sun had slipped out of sight
behind the hill
as delicately as a white strap
slipping off a smooth brown

shoulder.

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Gallery

A Week in Provence

“…amongst the pale olives, the dark cypresses, the grey rocks and the flat-roofed, flat-faced houses which in spite of their poverty and austerity seem to hold promise of a sweeter life within their dry old walls.”
– Stella Bowen

”I’m in a fever of work since the trees are in blossom and I want to [paint] a Provençal orchard full of enormous brightness. ”
– Vincent Van Gogh, letter to his brother

“The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.”
– Rudyard Kipling

We had been here often before as tourists, desperate for our annual ration of two or three weeks of true heat and sharp light. Always when we left, with peeling noses and regret, we promised ourselves that one day we would live here. We had talked about it during the long gray winters and the damp green summers, looked with an addict’s longing at photographs of village markets and vineyards, dreamed of being woken up by the sun slanting through the bedroom window.”
― Peter Mayle, A Year in Provence

(All photos © FB 2014)

Fairytales in the Loire

It was an unbearably hot afternoon when I arrived in the Loire Valley, and the air was so still and heavy with pollen that I could almost feel it brushing against me as I walked. It was Sunday, and to my surprise, the streets of Tours were completely silent and empty. Here and there a similarly baffled tourist was wandering around in the heat, peering hopefully at the windows of shops and cafes and (I presume, because I was) longing desperately for an ice-cold drink. But everything remained shut and eerily deserted, so I wandered down to the river, sniffling and sneezing from the pollen, to look for some shade to sit under. It was a bit more lively down there; mostly small groups of young people drinking and smoking on picnic blankets, and brushing away those hoardes of midges whose only goal in life seeems to be incessantly trying to get inside your mouth and nose. It was as though the whole town had shut down to give everyone no option but to sit back in a deckchair and bask in the sun.

Slide1IMG_0817Everything about the Loire Valley seems, on first impression, fairytale-like. Winding roads bordered with tall grass, small stone villages with cobbled streets and narrow houses, the river bubbling along and, occasionally, the turrets of a chateau in the distance, looking for all the world like a Disney-castle against the bright blue sky. The wildflowers are vivid red and yellow against the crumbling brown gates that lead to ramshackle laneways and hidden paths. The whole time I was there the sky felt full and oppressive, threatening at one moment to burst into a storm, and then switching with confusing immediacy to a bright, dandelion sunlight. I felt like Red Riding Hood venturing out, with my neatly packed lunch and my light cotton dress, into an unknown story.

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The way to read a fairy tale is to throw yourself in.”
W.H. Auden

In Amboise, one of the tiny but beautiful towns dotted around the Touraine, we came across miniature houses carved right into the cliff-face. Called ‘troglodytic houses’, they are hundreds of years old, but people still live in them and you can even book them for a short stay. We were invited in to look around by a couple who were visiting from Paris. Walking up the stone stairs and inside, you felt the temperature drop by at least ten degrees; it was exactly like walking from a humid street into an air-conditioned department store. The house was beautifully furnished, bedroom, bathroom, all the mod cons, but it was literally gouged out of the rock; you had to duck to avoid hitting your head on overhanging ridges, and in places there was the slight drip of water trickling through. It was a 21st century cave. On the wall hung a blue sign that said ‘Le Petit Trog’, the name of the dwelling, and outside, there was a little garden buzzing with bumblebees and butterflies and full of delicate flowers and wild strawberries, turning their stems from the cliff face towards the sun.Slide2Standing in the coolness, I felt once again as though I had stumbled into a fairytale. Like I was Goldilocks peering into someone else’s house, porridge bowls on the table, socks scattered around and clothes spilling out of suitcases lying open in the shadowy corner, lit by the dim lamplight that only just reached the edges of the rocky walls that seemed like they could, one day long ago, have sheltered a hibernating family of bears.

DSC_0490DSC_0371In the evening, I went back to a house in a tiny French country village for dinner. We ate cheese and bread and drank lemonade out in their beautiful rambling garden, filled with apple trees and vegetables and secret hidden corners, while the clouds above us turned blacker and the thunder rumbled in the distance. And then I walked around with a bucket, picking handfuls of the wild raspberries that grew all over the garden, occasionally popping one in my mouth and feeling the burst of sweet, ruby juice that tasted, somehow, of everything that I experienced that day: the dappled sunlight, the hum of bees and dragonflies, the almost imperceptible fragrance of a blooming rose, the rain falling in fat drops and bursting on the cobbles like splotches of grey paint.

Simple pleasures are the best.” -Alan Bradley

Later, as the light faded behind the gathering clouds, we ate those freshly-picked rasberries and strawberries with cream and sugar on white china plates, and after a long day and sore feet and sunburnt shoulders, it was almost certainly one of the best meals I have ever eaten.

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DSC_0455I think I realised that day that the thing I remember loving about fairytales as a child was the idea of those simple pleasures: rough bread and butter or a steaming bowl of porridge or hot soup, trudging through the bracken in a forest with a basket of berries, a cosy candlelit cottage surrounded by snow in dark woods. And it’s something I am still drawn to today, and something I remember every time I travel to Europe; the feeling of stumbling into a fairytale.

DSC_0461Europe always makes me think of cobbles and stars and bustling markets, wildflowers and secret lanes, castles, cottages, fields of poppies or corn, grand marble staircases, green frogs basking in still ponds, shuttered windows, sunlight through trees. I think for me, exploring Europe is a little like exploring the landscape of my childhood fairytales. And despite the difficulties that come with travel, those little fairytale moments are the ones you are left with. Neil Gaiman said about fairytales,

Fairytales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

And that’s why they’re important. As children, they introduce us to the existence of despair and danger and discomfort, the big bad wolves of the world. But they also show us that these realities are valuable because they contrast with those moments of simple pleasure, and make them all the more worthwhile.

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(All photos © FB 2014)