Thursday, 13 October 2011

October 2011

James Watson: A Writer’s Notebook


*Number 5 in a series on ENCOUNTERS
*Notes in Passing: Temenos on Teesside
Poems of Place…2 Windchimes on West Hill


Guernica, market day, 26 April 1937

The dramatic finale of The Freedom Tree, set during the Spanish Civil War, sees Will, a British Battalion volunteer and Molly, a nursing assistant, accompanied by their Spanish friend José, arrive at the Basque market town of Guernica. In Peg, a commandeered van, they have made a lucky escape into seemingly peaceful territory. General Franco’s fascist army is aided and abetted by German aircraft. Mola, commander of Franco’s northern battalions, has issued a proclamation demanding that ‘if submission is not immediate I will raze all Vizcaya to the ground, beginning with the industries of war’. The proclamation concluded: ‘I have the means…’

The tide of war seemed to be behind them. Ahead were signs of a people still at peace – farmcarts pulled by oxen and piled high with produce for market. The Basque peasants walked backwards in front of their oxen, gently urging them on with the occasional tap of a stick on the horns. They talked to the oxen and the oxen seemed to take in every word…

The Oak of Guernica seemed to beckon Will and Molly to its quiet solitude. It was, thought Will, like walking out of the bustle of his home town, Jarrow, to the holy silence of Bede’s Well; a similar pilgrimage. They stood before an oak tree like other oaks, not bigger, not grander; yet a special oak.

Beneath the spread of its branches there were wooden seats carved with the arms of Vizcaya – a tree and lurking wolves. ‘Smell the sea, Molly? It can’t be faraway.’

‘I’ll remember this for ever.’ The early evening sunlight tilted red through the dark branches as José described how, when the rights of Vizcaya were declared, trumpets were blown and bonfires lit on hilltops all over the province. The hum of the market did not drown the soft rustle of the leaves. A breeze carried rose petals along the ground.

Then from across the town came the sound of a church bell. It struck single chimes, and the look of contentment on José’s face vanished. ‘San Juan!’

‘What’s he saying, Molly?’ José was dragging them away. ‘What’s happening?’
‘Air raid!’
General Mola was keeping his word.
The three of them ran. And then they stopped running, for where was there to run? They stood still. They waited. The bell of San Juan struck again and again and again, stirring apprehension into fear…

Above the squall of voices close by, the shouts, the clatter of panicky feet, there came a faint drumming roar. Will and Molly knew that sound well enough. ‘It could be they’ll pass over – on their way to the factories in Bilbao.’ They took comfort from this possibility. After all, what strategic significance had this sleepy market town?

A single plane, blunt-nosed, with the outline of a killer whale, skimmed the town. ‘Heinkel!’ The bombs were clearly visible. They glided through the rays of evening sunlight. One…two…three…four, and the ground shook, the air flashed. A blistering wind swept the rose petals over the dusty earth.

Five…six, followed by the crack of grenades. Will gripped José’s arm. Were there any anti-aircraft guns in Guernica? The young Basque replied that there were no guns and no troops either; scarcely a rifle to aim at the sky. Having delivered its load, the German Heinkel 111 banked towards the west. José beat his fist against stone. He had heard the rumours, he said, of other bombings, at Durango, Elgueta, at Ochandiana and Elorrio.

Perhaps this was just a warning. Perhaps a single pilot had a few bombs to drop to fulfil his quota. Perhaps the Heinkel was the first and last…An aching pause. Optimism rising, then fading as a second Heinkel traced the path of the first, its target the town centre. It completed an unchallenged tour of destruction with a burst of machine-gun fire.

José advised that if a full air-raid came, they must look for the sign REFUGIO where they would find shelter behind sandbags. Thirteen minutes. Fourteen. On the fifteenth, silence died. The thunder of man rolled across the western horizon.

‘Tranvias! Tranvias!’ The call spread down the street. ‘Tranvias!’ José explains: ‘’Trams. That’s what the people call the Junkers…Junker fifty-twos.’ The temporary peace was shattered by the clanking roar of huge, ugly, clumsy monsters that hardly seemed able to hold their position in the air.

‘Too late for a refuge. Quick, against the wall!’ Will’s hand searched for Molly’s. They watched the bombs fall in a single, streaming cascade. They saw whole streets shudder with the impact of high explosive. Houses split in two, lifted from their foundations. Great walls keeled over into the streets. Solid brick and stone disintegrated. Plumes of black smoke shot upwards through the jagged ruins…

This was a new kind of war, no longer soldiers against soldiers, but the deliberate extermination of civilians. Will watched the bombs falling, tilting in line, sometimes spinning. He saw them plunge to the very heart of the houses. Roofs collapsed into upper storeys, upper storeys on to the floors below, ground floors into basements.

He was sick with fear. He could hardly breathe. He felt Molly trembling. Equally shaken, José prowled. He refused to stand with his back to the wall. He advanced into the road. He snarled abuse at the sky…The streets were deserted no longer. For the people, their refuges threatened to become stone coffins. They fled from battered and unmolested homes alike. They would take their chance in the open. The town was doomed. They must escape from it.

José had stepped in among the crowds. He tried to rally them, turn them back as though a barricade or ranks of determined people would frighten the German aircraft away. ‘Gara Euzhadi Eskatuta! Gara Euzhadi Eskatuta!’

‘What’s he shouting, Molly?’
‘It’s the Basque freedom cry…Long live free Euzhadi.’
The Heinkels, with their characteristic split wheels, were flying so low that Will could see the faces of the pilots. The aircraft swooped over the streets. José declined to take shelter in a doorway. He was in the middle of the road, screaming at the Heinkels. Their target was not wood and stone and glass, but running flesh. They dived. They machine-gunned.

‘José, come back!’
The young goatherd was advancing in the direction of a lone Heinkel coming in from the east, diving low, furrowing the stone ground with machine-gun fire. He was a sleepwalker. He had stepped out of his living skull. Rage was his only instinct. He paused. He looked over this shoulder at Molly and Will. He raised his fist in salute as if to say thanks, as if to say – goodbye.
He held his empty wine bottle as a club. He cursed the Fascists. He cursed Franco. He walked almost into the shadow of the Heinkel. ‘Gara Euzhadi Eskatuta!’ He cast his bottle, spinning, flashing, at the plane’s propeller…

Previous encounters:
Boy meets girl, from Besieged: The Coils of the Viper
(Blog 21, 17 March 2011).
Girl meets girl, from Fair Game: The Steps of Odessa (Blog 22, 14 April 2011).
Dissident girl meets dissident poet, from Ticket to Prague (Blog 23, 11 May, 2011).

Talking in Whispers the novel that followed The Freedom Tree is now available on Kindle, priced £2.34 (including VAT).

Temenos on Teesside
The Temenos site is pure surrealism. The word temenos means ‘land assigned to holy ground’, a sanctuary; and the massive sky-perched construction by Anish Kapoor bestrides the old Teesport and a desert of waste ground like an aircraft uncertain of a safe landing.
Years ago, this vast, flat area beside the Tees was a dense landscape of working class housing, pubs by the dozen and ripe (as the 1960s developers saw) for clearing. Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium came first, towering above a desolation of flattened streets, though the bulldozers stayed their tracks, for whatever reasons, at abandoned brickshells, scarcely-surviving factory sites and the Victorian clock tower which still stands in sad isolation between the Kapoor and the dazzlingly bad chunk of the Middlesbrough College.

Future forlorn
What struck this visitor (once an inhabitant of these parts) was the lack of people. The area remains a bombsite, forlorn, full of promises about the future posted on endless hoardings of a new Middlesbrough. Yet everything peeling, fading.
One approach road from the town’s railway station represents everything: the road has been paved in multi-colours, yet the buildings to the side are either abandoned or are simply boarded up, with the Lord Byron pub the neglected prologue to hoardings concealing acres of waste land. They’ve put up new lighting pylons which have either begun to tilt, out of depression and neglect or because the designers considered tilt a design accessory.

The flash of aluminium
For no obvious reason coloured boxes have been placed along the patterned road that leads to the rear of the college when you would expect it to be the other way round. At the front, it is all flashing aluminium dwarfing what few windows have been included. The façade opens on to more waste land before the visitor comes to the old dock; an acre of dark water with not a sign of any ‘use’; no boats here, no marina, no fishermen, just a dank stretch of lonely water. Above it, the Kapoor hovers magnificently, but in its own loneliness a sad spectacle.

One looks beyond the brick walls, the outline of abandoned buildings, the huge steel hoist, itself a kind of afterthought, probably too costly to dismantle, to the iconic Transporter Bridge brightly painted in blue. This superb emblem of a once-dominant steel town seems to stand as a timely caution to those setting out to match reality with aspiration. Time and progress caught up with the Transporter; time and circumstance seems already to have caught up with the Temenos site.

The most fascinating aspect of Temenos is not what the planners intended
but, with its variegated shapes and patterns, the juxtaposition of new an old. It is a landscape to excite artist and photographer. It teems with surreal compositions combined with an assortment of messages about past and present to delight sociologists and semiologists alike.

One day perhaps development will catch up with the Kapoor, do it proud rather than reduce it to a folly. In the meantime, photographers and artists are recommended to hasten to Temenos; and decide for themselves whether it suggests a metaphor for the Britain of then and now.

Poems of Place…2


A night wind and at the sound of the chime
The walls around me begin to melt.
The theme of sea and fish, of shells,
Of boats hauled up on white shore of bath
Shakes, shimmers as this high house
Responds to the Last Post: spectres rise –
Listen! For the wind is whispering sea shanties,
Highland laments and moody blues.

From behind the sea-curtain homesick pilgrims
Mingle voices with the soft moan of war wounded,
With the nervous hum of evacuees driven
By necessity towards unwanted shores.
From farther off the chimes evoke the clink of iron
As gates close on the pallid faces
Of those whose requiem will be the hiss of gas.

Yet here on West Hill, the chimes speak softly
To sleeping children, of nursery rhymes and Postman Pat,
Or white peacocks and a lonesome donkey,
Or scented gardens and a pirate ship of flowers.
Here the great water tower stands sentinel,
Proud in neglect; its Renaissance balcony
The high-sky choirstall of migrant doves.

Washed and shaved, the poet descends
From his water tower of dreams, declares:
‘Those chimes – what magic!’
‘No chimes!’ is the laughing reply,
‘It’s only the plumbing, wind in the bathroom pipes.
Did you recognise the Last Post?’

With delight undiminished
He offers up a prayer to old houses
Where ghosts take up happy residence,
Turning copper u-bends into cathedrals;
And for a breeze of a price
Add to the bonus of hot and cold running water
A reverie of chimes for those on West Hill
Who choose to linger over time’s ablutions.

An Autumn Haiku

Orange leaves seem to
Be the wrong colour to show
People in bright scarves.

Lee Bishop


Letter from America
From Ken Melling

For most of the spring and summer we get visits from black bears. They are searching for food and are attracted by bird feeders, compost piles, or anything else that appears to them to be a food source. Certainly for the last few months we have had a visit almost every day. We have three ‘visitors’, two bears are young, probably two years old. On their hind legs they are over six feet tall and weight around 250/300 lbs. Both are males. The third is also a male, but a fully grown adult weighing in at 350/400 lbs. and taller on his hind legs (over seven feet). We believe that the drought (causing a lack of food) is the reason for the regular visits. We are high up, very few houses and spaced out, in a forest landscape with steep slopes.

Only a mother black bear with young is likely to be aggressive toward humans. The three we have are not aggressive and do not make any attempt to attack us or our dogs. They just run off and try somewhere else. If shouting and banging is not enough (very often they just ignore you and go on eating bird seed) I use a "BB gun" (to you an airgun) on a low setting and shoot at the body. This does not penetrate the skin but rather stings a bit and after a couple of shots they run off. Of course one or other is back sometime during the next day, sometimes one after the other. And it's always the same three bears but not the Goldilocks type.

Best regards from wild America!

Ken does not write from a cabin in the Yukon but from North Carolina.

Dear Ned Baslow
This is just to apologise for not using your first Letter to a Celebrity which you kindly mailed to Watsonworks in good time for publication. Initially the editorial team were slightly taken aback by your choice of correspondent, though on mature consideration we thought – why not if the advice you offer is sound? The question is, will it be heeded in time? We’ll run your letter in Blog 26 and hope for the best.

Contributions to welcome!