Monthly Archives: May 2007

Good-Bye to All That, Robert Graves

r_graves.jpgOn a recent visit to Deià I went to the parish church cemetery there.

There may be lots else to do in Deià, but I had a particular fancy to find the grave of Robert Graves. It took me a while though, which was probably my own mistake as I was looking for a proper grave, and what I eventually found was a large, crude, ceramic slab on the ground. I was somewhat disappointed about the poor and sparse, almost pathetically provisional appearance, but one can only assume that perhaps this was what the man himself might have wished for.

This eccentric British writer and poet of some 140 books who had made Mallorca his home on and off for over 46 years was born in Wimbledon in 1895. As you all may know he died in Deià in 1985, aged 90. Two of his sons still live there to this day. You might see one, or the other one, in the local Deià market, or else in Palma, perhaps at the Literanta bookshop.

It took me even longer to find Beryl Hodge’s resting place. Graves’ second wife died in 2003. She does not appear to have been given a proper grave in Deià; all that I found was a wall plaque, again very sedate.

Robert Graves had come to Mallorca and the village of Deià with fellow poet Laura Riding, in October 1929, having just separated from his first wife, Nancy Nicholson. Here in Deià, Graves built a house, Ca n’Alluny, and established himself as a full time writer for the first time in his life. For his simple lifestyle, he was soon labeled as the 20th century’s first Robinson Crusoe poet. With the hostilities of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 however, Robert and Laura were obliged to abandon Mallorca and move back to London after only seven years. With Europe in ruins and his beloved son David just deceased and also with a severe dissatisfaction with England, Graves and his second wife, Beryl Hodge, as well as their three remaining children, returned to Mallorca and Deià again. In 1946, they were able to return to Graves’s house and they resided there until his death in 1985.

Ca n’Alluny, Robert Graves’ house in Deià, has been turned into a museum which opened earlier this year. You may have no desire to go to the cemetery in Deià, but you may enjoy a trip to a great writer’s erstwhile home. Not quite like Ernest Hemingway’s country retreat outside La Habana, but then Hems never was into the sparse lifestyle of Robinson Crusoe either. And whilst Graves liked his vino tinto, there is no evidence that he would have been heavily into Mojitos or even Daiquiries.

The Robert Graves museum is closed on Monday, but open from Tuesday to Saturday 10.00 h – 17.00 h and Sunday 10.00 h – 15.00 h.

It seems perhaps that Robert Graves is more venerated amongst his British audience for his novels and biographical books. ‘I, Claudius’, ‘Good-bye to All That’, ‘Wife to Mr. Wilton’ and ‘The Golden Fleece’ are amongst his most successful fictional works, often with a historical setting. In Spain however, Graves seems more applauded for his poetry.

Spain is a country whose citizens have a deep nurturing of poetry and of contemporary verse at that, which to me seems almost unequalled amongst other European nations.

If your command of the Spanish lingo is up to it, why not try the small volume of ‘Poemas’, with 66 poems by the Maestro. Published by Pre-Textos, 30 €. Poems are printed here in their original English version, with a competent Spanish translation en-face on the opposite page. A meaningful way of helping your language skills along, in case you live in a Spanish speaking country. And in case your Spanish fails you, ‘Between Moon and Moon’, in English, is a book of some very readable selected correspondence, covering the years between 1946 and 1972.

 

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“Mallorca is paradise – if you can stand it”, Gertrude Stein reportedly told a young Robert Graves during an interview.

 

Well, we are told that the ‘I, Claudius’ author did like his paradisiacal retreat from the world, and if you visit Ca n’Alluny, you might glimpse why, for yourself.

 

Four Months of Alaska

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Our eldest daughter, Kilina, spent four months at UAF University of Alaska, Fairbanks (USA), from August to December of last year, participating in an exchange programme between universities. Check out her Alaskan blog here in case you should be interested. She became a bit of a Nanook whilst in Fairbanks. Kilina is now back at University of Sussex, Brighton (UK) where she has just finished her third year (out of four) as a Human Science student. Well done, Beans.

Fairbanks is just 300 kms south of the Arctic Circle, part of the Alaska Range at the edge of the Rocky Mountains. The Rockies are part of the Western Cordillera, one of the largest mountain belts on earth. They stretch over 6,000 kms from Alaska along the western side of North America right through to Mexico. The mountains are relatively young, having been formed mostly in the last 15 million years, by an oceanic part of a tectonic plate converging with a continent. There is still volcanic activity (Cascade Range) within in the Western Cordillera, which gives an indication of the ‘young age’ of the range. The highest peaks within the Rockies are those of Mount McKinley in Alaska with 6,194 m. The Alaskans are very proud of their Mount McKinley. 

Kilina admired Mount McKinley from a safe distance (see photo above). Of course, Mount McKinley is White Man’s name for the big rock. Locally this mountain is known as Denali by the indigenous population, which means ‘the high one’ in the Athabaskan language. That’s a bit like Ayers Rock in Australia, called Uluru by the Australian Aboriginals. Perhaps it would be a sign of respect if we would use the locals’ name for things or rocks or places rather than the explorers’ or the colonialists’ names.

It seems that Global Warming has reached Alaska already. Whereas most years, temperatures in Alaskan Winters reach up to minus 50º C, Kilina only had to suffer up to minus 30º C. The Alaskans, Inuit, including the Iniupiat, known to us lesser mortals simply as Eskimos, complain that it is way too warm for the fish that they live off; whales do not come to this part of the world any longer at the habitual time, and everyone is worried about the livelihoods of the Indigenous population. Also, like its vast Arctic home, the polar bear is under unprecedented threat. Both are disappearing with alarming speed. Polar bears are at risk of becoming extinct due to the Bering Sea not freezing over enough any longer and subsequently the bears losing their hunting grounds. Thinning ice and longer summers are destroying the bears’ habitat, and as the ice floes shrink, the desperate animals are driven by starvation into human settlements, only to be shot. Stranded polar bears are drowning in large numbers as they try to swim hundreds of miles to find increasingly scarce ice floes. Local hunters find their corpses floating on seas once coated in a thick skin of ice. In 1981, the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group agreed that the world population of polar bears was between 20,000 and 40,000. As of 1988 the most accepted estimate for the Alaska populations was 3,000 to 5,000. Now we are in 2007. Any guesses, anybody?

Perhaps somebody could tell Mrs. Bush to tell her husband?

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina

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The Bibliotheca Alexandrina is a place of learning, dialogue and tolerance. If you ever get in that is.

For nearly 2,000 years the ancient Library of Alexandria, Egypt, has been nothing more than an illusion, ever since it was destroyed by a fire or two in ancient times. It was considered the largest library in the ancient world, an antique academic institution and thus perhaps it was the oldest ‘university’ in the world.

When I first visited Alexandria some 30 years ago the idea of reviving the old library already was a project in the making. A committee set up then by the Alexandria University selected a plot of land for its new library, between the campus and the sea front, close to where the ancient library supposedly once stood.

I revisited Alexandria last year. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina had now been built. This huge modern library with its amazing building was designed by Norwegian architects Snøhetta. It was inaugurated some five years ago, in 2002.

 

Alexandrian people are lucky to have this library in their city. Sometimes they call it Egypt’s fourth pyramid. But as luck would have it, again I could not visit the institution because the Bibliotheca was closed for a day of rest. If you wish to go, do not visit on a Tuesday. Rumour has it that the Library is now, in 2007, open seven days a week, but you just may want to check on that before you go.

I only went to Alexandria for the day, by taxi from Cairo. I nearly missed my unsuccessful visit to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina because my taxi broke down on the motorway, but that is another story.

Alexandria is a bustling, vivid melting pot of peoples, cultures and religions. There are Egyptians, of course, but also Turks that mingle with Jews, Arabs with Copts and Syrians with Armenians, plus there are Italians and Greeks, and have been since Alexander the Great. Plus tourists from all over the world, Europeans, Scandinavians, Japanese, Americans, you name it.

 

Alexandria is completely different from Cairo, where I had come up from for the day. Cairo is scorching in the heat and is chaos and madness, with the sheer expanse of it, plus the hustling buzz of some 20+ million inhabitants. Alexandria is small compared to Cairo, with a population of ‘only’ 4 or 5 million, but it is the second-largest city in Egypt, and Egypt’s largest seaport. Cairo is Egypt pure and Arab to the core. Alexandria is cooler due to its seaside location, and feels closer to Europe and its Western values.

After my disappointing non-visit to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina I was off to the Constantine Cavafy museum. Constantine Cavafy is a famous poet of Greek descent but born in Alexandria. His home of the last 35 years of his life is considered a ‘must’ for all visitors to Alexandria and for all lovers of poetry. Do you really want to know that this one was also closed on my only day in Alexandria?

But there are other great places to see when in Alexandria, for instance the ancient Roman Amphitheatre or the opulent Graeco-Roman Museum.

Lawrence Durrell, author of the famous four novels that make up ‘The Alexandria Quartet’, went for his coffee to ‘Pastroudis’ in al-Horriya Road, as did the poet, Cavafy and also the Grand Old Lady of Egyptian music, Oum Kalthoum. You would be right had you guessed already that ‘Pastroudis’ is now boarded up and not ready for coffee, tea, shishas or anything else. As far as rumour has it, McDonald’s have acquired the place and no prize for guessing that Coke and burgers will be served there soon instead of Baklava or Falafels. But the terrace at the famous ‘Cecil Hotel’, now managed by the Accor Sofitel group, is also a great place for having one’s coffee and watching the world go by.

You might get the impression that I had a rather unfortunate and unsatisfying day trip to Alexandria, full of mishaps and near-misses. Well, far from it. I had one of the best days of my life, ever. It can be an exciting adventure to suffer a car break down in the middle of a desert motor way. It took an hour and a half to get the engine repaired and I was intrigued to learn that it cost 20 Egyptian Pounds for the mechanic’s labour (that’s the equivalent of 3 Euros). And it is thrilling, sometimes scary, to be driven from Cairo to Alexandria and back, mishaps or not. I can’t wait to go back to the city of Cleopatra, the Egyptian Queen. But perhaps next time I will take the train.

I just hope that on a future visit the Bibliotheca Alexandrina will be open for me.

Talking of novels, here’s an Egyptian novel that you should not miss: ‘The Yacoubian Building’, by Alaa Al Aswany. It is available in English and I for one was thoroughly immersed in its spellbinding, multi-layered story.

Camino de Santiago

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I had been thinking about walking the ‘Camino’ to Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia in Northern Spain, for a very long time. In fact, 29 years have passed now since the urge to go to Santiago pressed me for the first time.

Well, I finally succumbed to this calling and embarked on a most extraordinary journey. And I am pleased to say that despite my relatively advanced age and my totally untrained physical condition I not only started the ‘Camino’ on 1 April of this year but I also managed to complete it by arriving at the steps of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela after 34 days and some 850 kms of walking.

My very own ‘Camino’ started in Larrabetzu (43° 15′ 35″, 0° 53′ 30″) in the Basque province of Bizkaia and continued through the Northern Spanish provinces of Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia.

I took the following route: Larrabetzu, Lezama, SONDIKA, BILBAO, Muskiz, POBEÑA, Castro Urdiales, Islares, EL PONTARRON DE GUZIERO, Laredo, Santoña, GAMA, Castillo, GÜEMES, Somo, SANTANDER, Santa Cruz de Bezana, Boó de Piélagos, Mar, POLANCO, Santillana del Mar, COBRECES, Comillas, El Tejo, SAN VICENTE DE LA BARQUERA, Muñorrodero, Pesués, Unquera, Bustio, COLOMBRES, Buelna, Pendueles, Andrin, Cue, LLANES, Pancar, Llanes, Poo, Celoriu, Piñeres de Pria, Belmonte, Toriello, RIBADESELLA, SAN ESTEBAN, Berbes, LA ISLA, Colunga, Priesca, SEBRAYU, Villaviciosa, Peón, ARREOS, Gijón, Veriña, Trasona, AVILES, Piedras Blancas, Soto del Barco, Muros del Nalón, PUERTO DE SAN ESTEBAN, Cudillero, SOTO DE LUIÑA, Valdredo, Novellana, Ballota, CADAVEDO, Villademoros, Querúas, Barcia, Almuña, Luarca, ALMUÑA, Luarca, Otur, Villapedre, PIÑERA, Navia, Jarrio, Cartavio, La Caridad, Salave, TAPIA DE CASARIEGO, Santa Gadea, Villamil, RIBADEO, Vilela, Vilamartín, Pequeño, GONDÁN, San Xusto de Cabarcos, Vilanova de Lourenzá, O Grove, MONDOÑEDO, Lousada, Chao de Aldea, Gontán, Abadin, Goiriz, VILALBA, Alba, Ínsua, Saá, SANTIAGO DE BAAMONDE, Santa Leocadia, Seixón, MIRAZ, Roxiba, Mesón, SOBRADO DOS MONXES, Corredoiras, Boimorto, O Castro, ARZÚA, Salceda, Santa Isabel, A Rúa, Pedrouzo, Amenal, San Paio, Labacallo, Villamaior, MONTE DO GOZO, SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA (place names in capital letters denote overnight stays).

 

Take the photo above (taken 1 April between Larrabetzu and Bilbao) as some kind of evidence of my ‘Camino’.

‘Ondo ibili’. That’s Basque for ‘Have a good journey’, or ‘Buen camino’.

 

More details about my Camino in due course.