24 February 2021

Gujars

Gujar woman

I have now typed twenty thousand words of my father's wartime tale of an adventure in northern Kashmir. His party has trekked beyond Lidderwat along stony tracks in the shadow of lofty mountains. They reach a high, treeless valley occupied only by Gujar shepherds and their families. This is his account.

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After crossing the stream in the manner described, we found a cluster of Gujar huts. When I write “found” I am choosing my words carefully for it would have been quite easy to pass within close proximity of those huts and not notice them. Each consisted of a thick roof of logs jutting out from the wall of the valley. This was supported by uprights also made from logs of great girth and strength. The roof logs were reinforced with grass, earth and dung so that the thickness of the roof was two or three times bigger. The spaces between the upright logs were interwoven with thick grasses and all apertures were sealed with soil and dung. The huts were built in this manner so that the snow which must fall onto the roof during winter or which might avalanche would not cause the hut to collapse. The resultant disaster to Gujar inhabitants  was therefore avoided. Looking at these huts one could visualise the terrific weight of snow which they would be capable of supporting. The construction  of the walls was such that they would be draught-proof how ever much the demon winds of the valley howled around.

We entered one of these huts but the darkness, the stench and the filth caused us to give the interior only a cursory inspection. The floor was of hard stamped earth – thereby matching the ceiling and the walls. Wherever one walked, the supporting pillars for the roof impeded one’s movement. The nether wall of the hut was simply the sloping side of the valley and against this was piled a large quantity of drying wood ready for use during the ensuing winter. In the centre of the hut was an open circular hearth constructed from blackened stones. There was no outlet for the smoke and because of this there was a lingering smell of old pinewood smoke commingled with various other olfactory ingredients that together created a most powerful odour. The stink of human bodies unwashed for many months, perhaps years, the decaying flesh that clung to the sheepskins hanging over a beam, the droppings of sheep and hens that evidently lived in the hut, the odour of spilt milk long since soured, scraps of food rotting on the floor – all these combined to make the stale  air  in the hut so offensive to our nostrils that we quickly curtailed our curiosity.

The occupants of the hut seemed to be three women , about ten men and  an indeterminate number of children. All were very dirty almost beyond belief. The women wore voluminous blue smocks that covered them from the neck to the ankle. The smock was stained and dirty with the accumulation of years of spillages. Their faces were thin, hatchety and unlovely and at the time I thought of them as much like the reincarnation of my childhood idea of witches. Underneath a dirty cloth coal-scuttle hat, reminiscent of those worn  in England during the Cromwellian period,  was a tangled mass of thin, tightly-plaited hair. This hair was in such profusion that it did not take too long to notice that the women’s natural hair was interwoven with strands of horsehair and it was obvious that once plaited the hair was never unwound. Hanging from their ears were huge earrings of both silver and wood, which pulled their lobes down towards their shoulders. The men were tall in stature and they also wore smocks but of a drab stone colour. Over their shoulders they draped a loosely rolled blanket or shawl. Skull caps fitted over their closely tonsured skulls so that they had a rather monkish appearance. Their faces were a walnut brown, weathered colour with the texture of leather and they were all bearded. Apart from their unwashed state they were quite an attractive and fine set of fellows. The children would be difficult to describe for they were in a motley array of clothes or stark naked. They were thin-faced, unwashed but laughing, vigorous and with a bright, intelligent light shining in their eyes.

23 February 2021

Milkmaid


"The Milkmaid" by Johannes Vermeer was probably painted in 1658 and is displayed in The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Vermeer created several paintings that were illuminated like this one - via the window on the left. Following his death in 1675, Vermeer's paintings were  largely ignored until an influential  French art historian began to sing his praises in the 1860's.

There is a lot more that could be said about this painting including its precision, its use of colour and the Dutch tradition of making images of maids. However, what I mostly wish to say is that I greatly admire this work. Because of a framed print my parents displayed in my childhood home, I have known it all my life. It seems almost timeless and celebrates the dignity of labour though I doubt that Vermeer saw it that way.

I imagine the model may have moaned to the artist, "Mr Vermeer, how much longer do I have to hold this bloody jug?  My arm is killing me!" Little did she know that over 360 years later  her sturdy image would be world famous.

22 February 2021

Somewhere

Oh, this could be the end of everything
So why don't we go somewhere only we know?
Somewhere only we know
Somewhere only we know

Keane (2004)

White the sand and sapphire blue the ocean. The bay curves round to the headland  where pigs root in  emerald undergrowth under elegant coconut palms. The trees reach up.  Their crowns are feathery fronds that rustle on the breeze.

There is nobody else on the beach - no one at all. It's always like this at this time of day. Above, wisps of cloud move in slow motion across the endless blue canopy. 

How many centuries and how many tiny fragments of bleached shell and coral have conspired to form this fabulous beach? Uncountable. A hundred yards away, the vast Pacific booms upon the edge of the reef like a chorus of bass drums but here at Mofmanu, there is a gap. You can swim far out if you wish.

I leave "Cannery Row" with my striped towel and paddle beyond the shallows. How kind the water feels. Soon I am swimming with colourful  fishes by the wall of the reef. They dart in and out of the clefts and hollows. Some are alone and others form small shoals that catch the sunlight from above like tiny mirrors. Pieces of a rainbow. I see the arm of an octopus retracting.

As you move further out, the water deepens and the shadowy fathoms beyond the reef soon become the colour of midnight. You feel the muscular contractions of the sea. Please take care. There be sea dragons and the swells could easily dash you against this  abrasive coral.

But it's not a dragon that brushes by me. It's a reef shark - as long as I am. My heart skips a beat but with aerodynamic ease he flicks his tail and moves on - entirely at home in his aquatic universe. I head for shore. Not panicking but nonetheless disturbed. 

My body dries in  late afternoon warmth. There are no ships on the horizon because there never are. Sometimes I think of home but it is so far away that I almost believe I dreamed it. At the far end of the beach, by the promontory, the pigs are now swimming. I can see the silhouette of the boy who unlatched their gate as I head back, leaving footprints in the sand.

21 February 2021

Marathon

Elisabeth Moss in "The Handmaid's Tale"

Imagine a film that lasted for thirty four hours. Effectively, that is what I have just sat through. My viewing was completed last night.

Some of you may recall that last year I read Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale", quickly followed by its sequel, "The Testaments". I was aware that a TV version of "The Handmaid's Tale" had been made  and I was keen to watch it . As it happened, in mid-January our daughter gave us a free connection to her Amazon Prime account and upon investigation I  found the show listed there.

I put the sidelight on, turned off the main light and settled down on our Lay-Z-Boy sofa with a glass of red wine. There were just ten episodes to watch and they stuck fairly closely to the novel itself. Little did I realise that when I first set out watching "The Handmaid's Tale" there would be more than one series of it. In fact there were two more series as the show springboarded into newly imagined territory but still very much within the spirit of the original dystopian novel.

Hence, I found myself glued to the box in the corner for thirty four hours and not the ten sessions I had been anticipating. I should emphasise here that I did not watch all thirty six episodes in one continuous shift. I saw them over a period of a month.

I have no complaints. It was a wonderful show in my humble opinion. I was gripped throughout. The cinematography was excellent as was the occasional and often quirky incidental music. There were many shots from above - undoubtedly assisted by drones and the colouration often veered appropriately towards soulless monochrome. However, there was always the blood red of the handmaids' capes.

It was another incredible example of what a bunch of human beings can do when they work together  towards a shared artistic goal - all pulling in the same direction. Actors and actresses, camera and sound people, scriptwriters, production staff, directors and costumiers. Really brilliant.

My hat goes off to Elisabeth Moss  who played the central character Offred, later Ofjoseph but really June Osborne. She was on screen for the majority of those thirty four hours - enduring torment, painful flashbacks, moments of delight, rape, childbirth on her own, all-consuming fear and the strength to fight back against the oppressive pseudo-religious state of Gilead. What a tour-de-force this was. More than acting it was as if Elisabeth Moss was really living the role.

Yes. It certainly was a marathon but I shall not forget this viewing experience  in a long time. I have a few lingering questions and reservations but it would be churlish to share them. Maybe "The Handmaid's Tale" would not be everybody's cup of tea but for me it was special and I will kind of miss my late night viewing  habit - occasionally accompanied by blood red wine.

20 February 2021

Trinity

I like to get out taking pictures with my "Sony" bridge camera every week but this week has been off-putting in weather terms. Quite a lot of greyness and drizzle. This is the best picture I managed to capture all week:-

It was taken in the affluent suburb of Millhouses. During the picture editing process I had to straighten the composition so that the church tower no longer looked like The Leaning Tower of Pisa. The church is under the jurisdiction of The Church of England and it's called Holy Trinity. It has the same name as the village church where I was christened in the spring of 1954.

The Holy Trinity refers of course to Father , Son and Holy Spirit. Confusingly, all three are simply different emanations of God as this helpful diagram explains:-

Holy Trinity Church in Millhouses is not a very old church when you consider that there are countless churches in England that are  a thousand or several hundred years old. Its construction was completed in 1937 in what is known as the "arts and crafts" style. Of course, the church was locked because of the pandemic that God has sent down upon us in his gracious wisdom so I did not get to see the internal architecture, carpentry, memorials and religious artefacts within. 

Though I have been a lifelong atheist, I would list visiting churches as one of my favourite hobbies. An old church speaks of the community in which it was built - like a mirror of past times. So many funerals, weddings and christenings, so many dull sermons delivered from lofty pulpits as choirboys like me fidgeted in the pews wondering why time seemed to be standing still. Would that sermon never end?

Even Holy Trinity, Millhouses would have things to say about pre-war days, architectural fashion, craftsmanship, the suburb's affluence and parishioners who still haunt the space within.

I continue to type my father's journal and through his word choices I feel that I am drawn ever closer to him. Three times he has referred to bathing in the icy water of the rivers that churn by their valley camps and I remember him in England's Lake District urging me and my brothers to swim in a mountain stream as he held our towels. He loved to take his family to The Lakes each Whitsuntide where fading echoes of Kashmir must have still hummed in his skull like heavenly music.

19 February 2021

Woke

The English language is forever evolving. It is dynamic and open to change or addition. It always has been and I guess that it always will be. Pick it apart and you will find ingredients from all over the world and from every decade of its long and animated history.

In the last one hundred and fifty years, North America with its economic and cultural power has  been an important driver. "Jazz", "cool", "H-bomb", "far out", "mouse"(computer), "shopping mall",  "dude",  "truck",  "candy", "French fries", "hipster" and  "subway" form  just a small sample of American terms that have been absorbed into British English.

This morning I was investigating the term "woke" which has become a bit of a buzzword  in the last couple of years even though most native English speakers who are middle-aged or older may have little idea what it means and probably never use it.

"Woke" harks back to the nineteenth century when downtrodden black Americans were urged to wake up and be aware of the forces that were pressing them down. If you were "woke" you were less compliant, less blinkered - more aware of your position and the things that stopped you from being who you wanted to be - "free at last".

The word "woke" as used in relation to political awareness hung on through the twentieth century though it did not have much traction. As Wikipedia informed me, it was used in a 1971 in a play about the black political activist Marcus Garvey when one of the characters announces: "I been sleeping all my life. And now that  Mr Garvey done woke me up, I'm gon' stay woke. And I'm gon help him wake up other black folk."

It seems to me that to be "woke" is  essentially a very good thing.  To be informed about politics  and the forces that impact upon people's lives: What's wrong with that? Better than living in ignorance.  Only by knowing can one begin to press for change.

"Woke" gained currency with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. It was as if the word itself had been woken up. Suddenly its usage soared.

However, in the last couple of years, "woke" has attracted negative connotations - like barnacles growing on its underside. To some conservative or reactionary commenters, "woke" people are frequently seen as educated white folk who  are aware and informed of  fashionable world issues such as LGBTQ rights, environmental destruction, racism, corporate greed etc. - like being in a self-satisfied chattering movement that is somehow disconnected from reality. Those who are "woke" are likely to point fingers at others with a holier-than-thou attitude as they live their smug ethical lives in comfortable homes.

In the form to which I am referring here, I cannot say that I have ever used the word "woke" in conversation. It does not sit well with me but what I would say is that it might be nice to chisel away some of those reactionary barnacles and start to reclaim the word. Being "woke" or awake to the issues around us is, as I said before, a  laudable thing. I would rather be "woke" than ignorant and liable to sneering. at those who simply want this world to be a better place.

18 February 2021

Tears

Cathy Killick is a veteran reporter on BBC Look North (Yorkshire). Tears leaked from my eyes when I first heard this heartfelt item on the programme and they leaked again later that night when it was reshown on the late, condensed version of the show. It concerns the deaths of both of her parents through COVID-19:-

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