Friday, 18 November 2011


November 2011
Blog 26

James Watson: A Writer’s Notebook


*LITERARY ENCOUNTERS 6: Athlete Meets Bull
: Capa challenged
*Poems of Place…3: Dolbadarn Tower
: The Celebrity Letters of Ned Baslow 1

Athlete Meets Bull

An edited extract from The Bull Leapers, set in Crete
at a time somewhere between legend and history. In
the kingdom of Minos slave athletes were brought, under
duress, from other parts of the Greek world to take part in,
and often to die in, the favourite sport of the Cretans – bull leaping.

Piros knelt at the altar built into the limestone wall of the arena. His companions, young men and women wearing loin-kilts of stiff brown cloth and light boots laced past the calves, bowed low around him, invoking the protection of the Goddess. The silence of the crowd gave way to excited conversation. The women’s dresses shone in the morning sun like the tail of a giant peacock, proudly unfurled. Its shimmering motion was matched by the women nodding or bending their heads, for their frizzed black hair was garlanded with strings of pearl and gold chains studded with jewels.

Brilliant blues and reds contrasted with the glaring arena sand. White walls stood in vivid outline against the misty green slopes of Mount Jukta – cleft, it was said, by the gigantic club of an angry god.

In this flourish of colour, Piros himself appeared no less distinctive. He was as black as the court ladies were sallow. His limbs were trim and muscular. His lips and nostrils were thicker than those of any other person there, and he had no need of court hairdressers to make his hair curl close to his skull.

Although he was only seventeen he had long been the favourite athlete of the crowd. He was called ‘The Egyptian’ because he had been a slave in the kingdom of the Nile. His mastery of the bulls had won him admiration throughout Crete. He was agile, cool-headed, wise in the ways of these creatures made mad by darkness and blinding light, and starved to make their tempers sharp.

The mark of Piros’ fame hung around his throat, a chain of gold supporting a disc engraved with the head of a bull. It had been awarded him, at the request of nobles and court ladies, by the man he now approached.

Nickname ‘The Bull’ for his powerful and frightening appearance, Prince Tauros looked older than his twenty-one years. He sat with his mother, the Queen, and his two sisters. Queen Pasiphae was a disdainful woman with arched brows, thin features and shrewdly intelligent eyes. Princess Ariadne, a girl of sixteen, also had a nickname, but one given her in admiration. She was called ‘Princess Fairlocks’. It was claimed that the Earth Goddess, as a birthday gift, had once brushed her hair with enchanted silver. Ariadne’s younger sister was Princess Phaedra, dark and solemn…

At the rasping summons of a conch horn, the painted gates opened. The bull stood motionless in a cloud of dust and sand, dazzled by the light. Its head swayed heavily, tail flicked. Its hooves stamped impatiently on the hot ground. A roar from the crowd broke over the bull’s head, confusing it, filling it with panic. It tried to halt the noise by wheeling round and snorting, only to discover that the sounds had swelled in volume. They had become united and were advancing to torment the bull with invisible thrusts.

Across a golden distance immediately ahead, a figure moved forward. All the noise and light seemed to concentrate in it. The figure danced, arms waving, and the voices seemed to burst from it, growing louder as it approached. Head down, blood pounding behind its eyes, the bull began to trot. It fixed the position of the black shape. Sand rose. The light was blocked by a swift shadow. There was a sudden pressure around the horns, a weight on the head that forced it downwards. Then a soft touch on the hind quarters, and beyond the settling dust there was nothing, only a yellow mist and specks of light.

The shadows came fast now, one after another. The bull tossed its angry horns and struck nothing but air. It felt the weight again and again, the strange final touch on the hind quarters, followed each time by the triumphant shouts and the sounds of hands beating together.

Despite its rage, the bull recorded the habits of its attackers. It knew their direction; that a shadow left the ground and a moment later there was the weight on its lowered horns. With every sortie the bull proved a more formidable adversary. It learned to raise its head as the shadow left the ground. Then there was a more rewarding encounter, with the impact of flesh and a cry different from the others. The light touch of hands on the hind quarters did not come.

Above its own stormy breath, the bull sensed a change in the noise. It was less certain, less triumphant. The creature spun around. Instinct was beginning to dispel its earlier desperation. The taunting had gone wrong. Something white and low moved close by, not dancing now, not waving, its head bowed.
The bull stood with sweat steaming on its shoulders and back, no longer terrified but filled with eagerness for the attack. The voice, a few strides away, was human, and in the whiteness there were eyes. Out of line of the bull’s vision, it sensed a flickering of shadows, but it had seen enough of its target to make no mistake. The weight on its horns was immense, uneven, then fell away, leaving spurts of hot liquid that coursed into eyes and nostrils.

The bull knew victory. Spattered with the blood of the young leaper, it now came straight for Piros. The Egyptian danced right up to the moment the horns were an arm’s length away. Then he was in the air, searching confidently past the blooded points to clasp the horns from each side. The bull’s head jerked upwards violently but Piros was already plunging forward, body straightened to the horizontal, legs beginning to bend at the knees.

He touched down on the slippery hide, rose again slightly, then brought head and knees tightly to his body. He sprang and landed on the balls of his feet. Momentum carried him a yard farther where he was checked by his team mate, Chronakis.

Yet the bull had measured another pattern. Instead of continuing its run as it had before, it halted and turned about. Shadows scattered. A white low form raised itself feebly. Horns were lowered to kill when all at once a weight came, not from the front, not in the form of a shadow. It was on the bull’s back. There was pressure about its throat as though ropes were being tightened.

Its eyes wrenched from the target and held square into the sunlight, the bull stumbled and tripped across the white shadow. ‘Quickly!’ yelled Piros. ‘Get him away.’

Theseus, the Athenian, enters the tale and adventures race through labyrinths of intrigue.


Capa challenged
So Robert Capa’s The Falling Soldier, the photograph that has come to encapsulate the poignancy and tragedy of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), is once again being charged as a fake: evidence in a recent issue of the Independent (‘Shot down – Capa’s classic image of war’, Elizabeth Nash) suggests a set-up arranged far from the scene of any real battle, in the Espejo region. A second picture taken at the same time shows several militia men in a scattered line, firing against a landscape that certainly resembles that in The Falling Soldier.

Of course authenticity matters: the moment of death-by-bullet is real and symbolic; the simulated reality is symbolism of another sort. Capa’s picture portrays a bare hillside and a featureless sky; a republican soldier is hurled back by the force of the bullet that kills him.

His right arm is flung outwards, his rifle slipping from his grasp. Legs buckle, neck jerks partially sideways: for him, the last moment of life, but for the photographer, a supreme moment of truth.
The problem seems to arise from differences over location – Espejo or Cerro Muriano, though it has to be said that the landscape of both is not dissimilar. Could the painstaking research of amateur sleuth Mario Brotons (not mentioned in the Independent article) help resolve this decades-long controversy?

Painstaking research
At the age of 14, Mario Brotons had fought in the Civil War. He was present at the same time as Capa in the Cerro Muriano front near Cordoba in September 1936. Later in life, Brotons became haunted by Capa’s picture. He felt sure he recognised the picture’s terrain and the dress (not uniform) of the dying soldier – open-necked shirt and light-coloured trousers.

Brotons was convinced that this soldier was a miner from Linares in Andalucia, in particular one of the 300 militiamen of the Alcoy contingent, recognisable from the cartridge belts and harnesses they wore, hand-made by local leather craftsmen to the garrison commander’s special design.

Brotons actually went as far as identifying the soldier, naming him as Federico Borrell Garcia, a 24-year-old millworker from the town of Alcoy (Brotons’ home town), recorded dead on 5 September 1936. Though archives in Madrid and Salamanca state that many militiamen had been wounded on the Cerro Muriano front that day, each registered only one dead – that of Federico Borrell (maternal surname, Garcia).

‘I knew him well.’
Questioned about the soldier in Capa’s photograph, 78-year-old Maria, widow of Everisto, Federico’s younger brother, confirmed that the man in Capa’s picture was her dead brother-in-law: ‘I knew him well.’

Sadly, Mario Brotons died in 1996 before he could publicise his discovery or defend his conviction about the authenticity of the photograph. Nevertheless, he left behind copious documentation that was given headline treatment in the Observer and duly honoured in the Imperial War Museum’s Spanish Civil War exhibition, Dreams and Nightmares (2001-2).

Capa was killed in 1958 photographing the Vietnam War. I reckon I’ll opt for that cartridge belt and harness as likely authenticators until evidence stronger than a black-and white background shifts my faith in this amazing picture.


Poems of Place 4


When stone upon stone
This tower was built
By hands untutored
In the language of art;
On this eminence: the hill peak
With Lamberis lake beyond,
And further still the mountains,
The talk would never
In a thousand years
Have dwelt on myth or mystery,
The quaint or the magical; and yet
The Tower of Dolbadarn
Placed by rude hands in raw clime
Inspired constructions in oil-paint,
Fabrications in delicate washes
By masters such as Claude Lorrain
And in consequence the mighty Turner
As well as lesser daubers
In search of style.

Moses Griffiths painted here;
William Jennings and Henry Gastoneau.
Here sketched entranced Thomas Tutor,
William Buttle and John Josiah Dodd.
Here on damp grass under lowering skies
Georges Salter, Campion and Barrett
Defined the picturesque,
And after brief dreams made way
For Sandby, Paul and Thomas Smith Café.

On a special Sunday in Lent
The humble masons left their shivering tombs
For a private view –
Sponsored by the Arts Council of Wales –
Of tower and landscape framed,
Of mists enticed, sun-streams captured,
Of light romanced, of meaning
Delineated in golden
(But also learned) hues.

‘How’s it strike you, Dai?’
Enquiries the Curator with sherry poised,
Of the master mason, disengaging him
From his moss-covered huddle.
‘Such artefacts,’ Dai pronounces
(The room’s electric
For art and life are truly met),
‘Such artefacts show bravura,
Indubitably sweet sensitivity,
Unarguable skills, if not genius –
‘But’ – and here the room grows cold
As the myriad ghosts of artists past
Rise up with dank breath
And palettes colourless –
‘But I fear the secret message
Of Dolbadarn eludes one and all.’

Aghast, the master daubers shiver.
Their bones rattle like wild Welsh gales.
‘Pray how, Dai,’ ashen tinctured
Quakes the Curator, much deflated,
‘Do you deny the vision
Of sublimity, reject the judgment
Of scholarly voices
To arrive at such a conclusion?’

Dai’s words are winter leaves
Crackling through frosted churchyards:
‘The secret all probed for
Lies not in the tower but in the stone,
Not in the tree but the bark,
Not in the leaf but the vein,
Not in the lake, but the waterdrop
For my parched throat; not
In the sky but the air
I can no longer breath.’

Though fading fast, Dai mutters on,
Dolbadarn shimmering, Llanberis aglow
In his outstretched palms:
‘Put them together, good Sirs,
And what have you got?’

From their own cold beds
In windswept heather and thyme,
The geniuses of the sable
Cock fleshless ears and await
The master mason’s divination.

Alas dear readers, at this moment
Another master – the caretaker-in-chief –
Slams open the museum doors, and calls,
‘Everybody out, smelly corpses first!’
For none high or low dare say him Nay.

And that is the reason the Tower of Dolbadarn
Retains its secret to this very day.


Readers may recall correspondence the Blog has received from Ned Baslow of Derbyshire. In response to a NOTES IN PASSING feature on the ancient sites of Derbyshire, such as Arbor Low and The Bull Ring (Blog 15, 15 September 2010) Ned wrote to point out that he and his wife Betty did their courting on the hallowed site of the Bull Ring.

He later informed us of the super arts festival he was helping to arrange in his home village of Wickerstaff-cum-Fernhaven, though this has had to be postponed as a result of Councillor Stokoe, star of the musical dramatisation of The Adventures of Don Quixote, having suffered a fall resulting in the need for a hip operation.

Councillor Stokoe very kindly wrote to Editorial recommending Ned’s Letters to Celebrities and we have permission to reproduce the councillor’s comments here:

It gives me great pleasure to comment on what has become known as The Baslow Letters or Letters to Celebrities, written by my friend Mr. Ned Baslow whose entrepreneurial energy as honorary Press Officer of the Wickerstaff-cum-Fernhaven Drama and Light Opera Society and the district’s Annual Summer Arts Festival has become a byword and an exemplar in the town and beyond.

What comes out of the letters is Mr. Baslow’s humanitarian concern, his willingness to speak his mind, his dedication to the arts and his occasional erudition which caused surprise in some quarters, until it was discovered that his good wife Betty is well in to her Open University degree.

Above all, the reader will be struck by Ned Baslow’s patriotic sentiments mixed with a healthy scepticism concerning the occasional pretentiousness to be found in the world of arts, and more generally in people who have experienced rather too much higher education.

Councillor Gilbert Stokoe MBE.

The editorial team were somewhat taken aback at Ned’s choice of correspondent, expecting missives addressed exclusively to those at least with a toehold in the land of the living. However, reading the first of Ned’s letters we acknowledge that, dutifully taken, the advice he gives could well have made a difference to a great deal that has happened in this country since, well, since 1066 and all that.

Dear King Harold (nèe Godwinson),

I am writing this in haste hoping to reach you (despite the recent bout of postal disputes brought on by new mechanisation) before you march south. But first I’d like to congratulate you on your fine victory at Stamford Bridge (the northerly outpost that is, not the home of Chelsea Football Club). It is truly amazing to learn of the speed at which your prodigious Housecarls marched to battle and, scarcely with half a day’s ration in their bellies, put the enemy to route.

However, my purpose in writing to you is to urge a degree of caution. Your decision to hasten south, at the double – that is, bearing in mind the fatigue of battle experienced by your stout-hearted Saxons, could be judged rash if not precipitous. Bravery is one thing, my lord, but recklessness might well get you and yours into hot water. True, William of Normandy is by all accounts encamped on English shores, exercising his men and his steeds at Pevensey and carousing in hostelries from Lewis to Bexhill.

True he has a certain legal justification for what I know all of Saxon England considers a gross trespass, but believe me, Sire, once the lawyers get their teeth into something, peace of mind flies right out of the window. The story going round is that you signed a document acknowledging Billy Norman as your sovereign overlord, though you may have a case for defaulting on that signature as you had put pen to paper under duress.

The nation appreciates that Billy, having you captive by the short and curlies following your rescue from the prospect of a watery death, was taking advantage of his hospitality; but to expect a kingdom as payment for bed and breakfast and possibly an evening meal with a free glass of wine – well, sucks to that!

Now these Normans are a mercenary bunch, a band of spoilers – I mean, look what they got up to in Sicily. There’s not a democrat among them. What they see, they take and what they can’t take they sell off on the black market.

In summary, my lord Harold, they are not to be underestimated or casually classified as snail-eating softies. Billy Norman means business, and make no mistake, he is a cunning varlet and has already made it clear on a number of occasions that he considers you a Thick Brit, stronger in the arm than in the head.

The future of our nation, Sire, depends on you and your counsellors, your housecarls, your archers and halberdiers (if you have any in your ranks) playing it cool, opting for the tactics of stealth as opposed to full-frontal attack.

It’s been mentioned that you are particularly anxious about your properties in Wessex and it is understandable that this bit of England scores slightly higher on your personal popularity meter than lesser places like Essex, Cornwall and all those parts to west and north covered in snow for half the year. My advice, in this matter, in fact my strong recommendation, is that you look to the bigger picture.

As for your immediate strategy, forgive me for urging you not to head hell for leather for Billy’s camp. Doing that would be like putting your entire savings on Shrewsbury Town beating Manchester United in the Cup Final. Your lads will arrive tired, hungry and bleary-eyed, with not a pint of ale or a roast boar in sight.

They’ll be needing a change of shirt and god knows how long it’ll have been since they had clean underwear. Boots? What boots after all that marching?

To be frank with you, I have had this premonition that you might let heroics rule over common sense. Clearly you will be impatient to deliver one in the eye to your enemy, but he is no slouch. Being a Norman (we call them Tories these days) he’s certain to resort to dastardly tricks, especially if he considers you might have the advantage, say, of the high ground.
Watch him! That is my counsel; and if he tries on one of those canny feigned retreats…well, of course, you know all about that sort of thing; but if you’re dog tired there’s always the danger of forgetting the ABCs of combat. And you can be sure that Billy will have treated himself and his cohorts to a decent night’s sleep and a fried breakfast.

Attack? – No. Your best advice is to play for time. Relax, the whole country’s behind you. Let old Billy fret. Let him worry about when his next meal is coming from; and as his line of advance begins to look like a line of retreat, when his cavalry’s eating grass and wondering where all the signposts to London have disappeared to, then you strike. This time it will be you who have him by the short and curlies.

I am of the opinion, Sire, that it would be stark, staring lunacy not to opt for defence by stealth on this occasion. Ignore the temptation to play two up front, leaving your centre backs open to counterattack. Those housecarls of yours are renowned for having more muscle than grey-matter, so keeping them on a tight leash should be a priority.

Despite the doubts that have driven me to pen this message, I feel confident that even if my letter does not reach you before your departure, its recommendations will already have been anticipated and heeded.

Sire, I can see 1066 being another triumphant year for Britons everywhere, and yet another affirmation of the English (I mean Saxon) way of life.

Yours confidentially,
Ned Baslow
‘Yer Tis’,
Old Roman Road

Editor's postscript:

Thanks, Ned. There’s nothing lost by trying, though we fear your advice might not reach Harold in time. Meanwhile, we are considering your next in the series as we're confident our readers will be as interested in hearing what Mr. Homer has to say for himself as you are.

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