Thursday 20 March 2014

'Life is an inn'

I have been to Dartmoor for the weekend in the spring sunshine. It can’t be said that the southern half of England has any sense of wilderness by North American standards, but Dartmoor is as good as it gets – a bleak, eroded, atmospheric plateau of moorland and granite tors, once covered with trees, and peppered with prehistoric standing stones and hut circles, moss covered boulders, craggy, gnarled trees bent by the wind, bogs and fast flowing streams.

Under a light blue sky it’s cheery and bright. In the mist – think of the terrifying howl of the Hound of the Baskervilles. It comes with its own legends. Whilst camping here years ago with a handy little guide to the ghosts of Dartmoor as my sleeping bag side reading I was particularly appalled by the Story of the Hairy Hands, which would clutch the shoulders of petrified motorists driving the long lonely roads at night and wrest the steering wheel into a death crash. It’s easy to see how Conan Doyle got inspired…

And I visited a lovely Cornish church – St Swithins at Luancells outside Bude – a typical granite church, with its own holy well (good for eye complaints), set above a small stream, among trees animated by cawing, nest-building rooks, daffodils and celandines and the first bees.

It’s perfect. Ancient tombstones carrying the names of long generations of the same families – before people got restless and lost the sense of place; ancient wooden pews, gnawed by time; the local gentry reclining in leisurely fashion in their comfortable wall monuments; a list of vicars reaching back 700 years – men who sound like characters from Arthurian legend: Sir John de Launcelas, Sir Philip de Romelode, Sir Baldwin Tybot (they were a titled lot in the Middle Ages) – and the splendidly named Sir Walter Cola; fifteen century floor tiles and cheery epitaphs on memorial slabs, such as this:

Life is an inn; think man this truth upon;
Some only to breakfast and are quickly gone;
Others to dinner stay and are full fed;
The oldest man sups and goes to bed.
Large is his debt who lingers out his day;
Who goes the soonest has the least to pay.

I think the light-hearted message here (apart from living being a form of gluttony) is that the sooner you die, the fewer sins you have to work off. Phew.



Wednesday 12 March 2014

The Way of the World

In between writing, I'm reading The Way of the World by Nicolas Bouvier, a book I've been putting off for years, in the perverse belief that it would prove too enjoyable. Which it does.

It's the tale of a road trip taken by two young Swiss, Bouvier and his friend Thierry Vernet, from Serbia to Afghanistan around 1953-54. They travel in a small underpowered tin Fiat at about 15 mph - so slowly they have time to see everything, record the world around them. They have an accordion and a guitar and they play music with the gypsies; they paint and write and see the world afresh, as if for the first time.

Here's Bouvet, snowed into Tabriz in Iran for six months, on the subject of bread:

"At daybreak the smell of the ovens drifted across the snow to delight our noses; the smell of the round, red-hot Armenian loaves with sesame seeds; the heady smell of sanjak bread; the smell of lavash bread in fine wafers dotted with scorch marks. Only a really old country rises to luxury in such ordinary things; you feel thirty generations and several dynasties lined up behind such bread. With bread, tea, onions, ewe’s cheese, a handful of Iranian cigarettes and the leisurely pace of winter, we were set for a good life."

And here on the Turkish plateau at night on the edge of autumn, the memory of one of those special moments that travel brings:

“East of Erzurum the road is very lonely. Vast distances separate the villages. For one reason or another we occasionally stop the car, and spend the rest of the night outdoors. Warm in big felt jackets and fur hats with ear-flaps, we listened to the water as it boiled on a primus in the lee of the wheel. Leaning against a mound, we gazed at the stars, the ground undulating towards the Caucasus, the phosphorescent eyes of the foxes.

Time passes in brewing tea, the odd remark, cigarettes, the dawn came up. The widening light caught the plumage of quails and partridges...and quickly I dropped this wonderful moment to the bottom of my memory, like a sheet anchor that one day I could draw up again. You stretch, pace to and fro feeling weightless, and the word ‘happiness’ seems too thin and limited to describe what happened.

In the end the bedrock of existence is not made up by the family or work or what others say or think about you, but of moments like this when you are exalted by a transcendent power that is more serene than love. Life dispenses them parsimoniously; our feeble hearts could not stand more.”

When I get to the end I’ll probably start again.
The cover of 'The Way of the World', by Nicolas Bouvier
Nicolas Bouvier on the road in Turkey