On Swifts Hill, opposite Slad (more photos below)
Everyone round here has a Laurie Lee story...do you have one to add?I first fell in love with Laurie Lee’s poetry when I was still at school. It carried the sensuous qualities of nature along with a strong dash of romance, the two elements which were closest to my heart at the time. I still have the edition of ‘Pocket Poets’, marked to indicate my favourite verses, for instance:
When red-haired girls scamper like roses over the rain-green grass,
and the sun drips honey.
('Day of these Days')
It seemed to me that he understood the magnetic pull of the English landscape, something I felt intensely from early years, and which perhaps has kept me here ever since. Even though I have had the travel bug, England is home, and I’ve always felt that I can’t give up the bluebells and the dew on the grass and the village fetes on a hot summer’s afternoon. In those days, I hadn’t travelled much, mostly by boat and train which was the norm then, but when Laurie Lee wrote about coming home across the Channel, I recognised what he was talking about. In the poem 'Home from Abroad', he says that Kent is merely a ‘gawky girl’, a pale shadow of the sultry wonders he has discovered abroad. But within a short time, her presence is transformed into ‘the green-haired queen of love’ whose ‘rolling tidal landscape’ drowns foreign memories in ‘a dusky stream’. The subtler charms of England have lured him back again.
Now we live near Laurie’s old stomping ground, the Slad Valley in Gloucestershire, barely fifteen minutes’ drive from the place he wrote about in such a compelling way in Cider with Rosie and in his poetry. And it often seems that he’s not quite gone from there. We are relative newcomers to the area, but practically everyone who’s been around Stroud for longer has a tale to tell about him. Just recently we watched the play of Cider with Rosie at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham. Two well-dressed middle-aged ladies in the row behind us were discussing him:
‘So did you see Laurie Lee often, then?’
‘Oh yes! I used to meet him about twice a week, at the Imperial.’
My acupuncturist mentioned casually that he was once her landlord, a musician friend related how he used to perform with him, and a local, now well-established writer, revealed that she’d marched up to his front door when she was still a teenager, asking if she needed to go to university in order to become a writer. ‘You don’t need all that,’ he told her, and it seems he was right.
So, as one who is always late to the party (metaphorically speaking), I never met Laurie Lee, but I can still revel in the legacy he left and the landscape he inhabited. Yesterday, in brilliant sunshine, we walked up Swift’s Hill which lies on the other side of the steep Slad Valley. Ponies were basking in the sun, a buzzard or two soared overhead, and the primroses were out in the hedgerows. We looked across to Slad, picking out the phone box, the pub, and the cottage we thought Laurie had lived in. (Rose Cottage, at the end of his life; the cottage from 'Cider with Rosie' is still there too.) There was curling woodsmoke in the air – ‘having a bonnie’ as the garden owner told us later - which added a touch of the old-world to the panorama. As we continued our walk, tracing the contours of the valley, we admired the charming, steep-gabled grey stone houses that were sprinkled across the hillside, ranging from tiny cottages like something out of a nursery rhyme to grander dwellings with many eaves. This local Gloucestershire architecture is my favourite of allEnglish styles; no two houses seem alike, and their quirky individuality seems to be a feature of people who live in the area, too.
Back in Slad later, we paid a visit to the Woolsack pub, Laurie's old watering hole, taking a look at the Laurie Lee bar, but hoping we wouldn’t get mistaken for tourists. Which in one way we were, of course – but maybe we were more pilgrims for an afternoon, on the L.L. trail. We found his tombstone in the churchyard, and later I looked up his poem ‘The Wild Trees’, which begins with the following lines:
O the wild trees of my home,
forests of blue dividing the pink moon,
the iron blue of those ancient branches
with their berries of vermilion stars
and ends: Let me return at last….
to sleep with the coiled fern leaves
in your heart’s live stone
Do you have a Laurie Lee story? Please post it as a comment here, and if we get a few, I'll create a separate blog post for them.
Interviews with Laurie Lee can be downloaded at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/gloucestershire/focus/2003/07/laurielee1.shtml
An album of Johnny Coppin with Laurie Lee, 'Edge of Day' (1989) can be purchased via http://www.johnnycoppin.co.uk
I have included these quotations in good faith that they don’t breach copyright due to their brevity, and hope that those in charge of Laurie Lee’s estate will consider this permissible use, but if not, please contact me and I will remove them.
I’ve covered another legendary local writer, W. H. Davies, in an earlier blog of July 26th 2012. Select ‘poetry’ in topics to find it.
I love to hear stories that people tell about their lives. Perhaps this is why, over the last ten years, I’ve focused much of my teaching and mentoring around life writing. This gives people the chance to write about real experience and real lives, whether it’s a complete life story, a travel memoir, an exploration of family history or just a take on the here and now. What have you seen? What did you witness? What discoveries have you made? Being a tutor on courses which tackle such themes puts me in a privileged position, to hear about other people’s lives.
The mention of ‘Life Writing’ can evoke a blank stare if you drop it into conversation. ‘What’s that? Isn’t all writing from life? Never heard of “death writing”! Ha!’ (They think they’ve got you there.) But I’m with biographer Michael Holroyd, in spirit at least, who says that we need to invent a better term than ‘non-fiction’ to describe writing about real lives: ‘non-fiction’ suggests a pile of assorted rubble, and one that doesn’t qualify as the true writer’s art, which therefore by definition has to be fiction. I sometimes describe my writing as ‘creative non-fiction’ which produces a few puzzled stares, but at least buys me time to think how I can explain the different aspects of my work.
Life writing may be a broad term, and it doesn't cover everything included within the heinous 'non-fiction' label, but it contains the treasure that is human experience. But perhaps the very fact of coining this term, and allowing it to be generously inclusive, has helped to generate fascinating new ways of writing up memoir and personal experience. Such books may be based on factual material, (the stuff of non-fiction) but which have this thread of personal experience, and stories of real people, at their core (the essence of life writing). Recent publishing successes of this kind include Robert Macfarlane’s brilliant books about the natural world, Louis de Wahl’s quest to find his ancestors in the best-selling The Hare with the Amber Eyes, and Julie Myerson’s heart-rending The Lost Child. All contain a personal journey, yet each also contains a wealth of knowledge, about nature or history or family life and psychology.
Publishing successes such as these often have their roots in the centuries-old practice of writing diaries, notebooks, letters, and memoirs. They spring from the habit of jotting down scraps of thought, wisps of ideas, shards of emotion and raindrops of memory. Trying to capture your dreams, observations, feelings, and impressions, while they are fresh in your mind, can give you the material which may one day form part of a longer life-writing project. But when you do this, you may have no such end in sight at the time. My diary of a visit to Russia in 1992 took fifteen years to evolve into a full-blown book called The Soul of Russia. Dating diaries, during my midlife single phase, transmogrified into a co-written guide called Love Begins at 40. And these kind of notes are often written from the sheer need to get it all down on paper! We can’t expect a book to come out of every scribble, but sometimes it does. It’s a mysterious, long-term process which may eventually lead to a result, in writing terms, but, more likely will leave us with a kind of life-writing scrap book. And this has its own value.
So I encourage anyone and everyone to try their hand at life-writing. You’re probably doing it already, in your own way. But coming on a course can help to structure the process, and give you new ways to approach it. Above all, it can be fun! This summer, I’ll be offering such a course at the Chateau of La Creuzette in France. (The details follow.) If you can’t join us there, then consider taking a short online course of the kind offered by the University of Oxford or Exeter. Take a look at my ‘Courses and Consultations’ page to learn more.
Writing the Journey - A course with Cherry Gilchrist, MA
1 September 2013 to 8 September 2013
at Chateau La Creuzette, Boussac, Limousin, France
Each of us is a traveller through both time and space, forging an individual path through life and exploring new landscapes in the world around. It’s this theme, of life as journey, which forms the basis for the writing on this course. Under the guidance of tutor Cherry Gilchrist, you will work on three different aspects of this: personal memoir which draws from your unique experience of life, travel writing about journeys you have taken, and creative writing, turning material from your inner and outer journeys into imaginative stories or poems. The journey also continues in the present moment, so you will be invited to refresh your senses in the beautiful surroundings of the Chateau Creuzette, and write from immediate experience.
The course will be structured around morning workshops with writing exercises, discussion, and feedback, and a short early evening session to follow up on the themes of the day. There will be plenty of time too to carry on with your individual writing, and to enjoy local excursions arranged by your hosts – perhaps taking your writer’s notebook with you to record your impressions!
Places are limited to ten students
La Creuzette offers superb cuisine, elegant surroundings and a warm welcome
(Place cursor over each photo to see caption, and click to enlarge)
It’s been a curious journey, rediscovering the production of Marat Sade that we performed as students in Cambridge in 1968. Since I put up the original blog post with photos, in June, I’ve had conversations both fascinating and slightly disturbing with others who were there at the time.
Did I remember, asked Isabel, the beautiful blonde standing above the crowd of lunatics, that we were dressed in real shrouds? No, I did not.
Did I also know that it was Julian Fellowes, of Downton Abbey fame, who played the asylum’s director? Hah! I was vaguely aware that we were at Cambridge at the same time, and hadn’t been able to remember which one he was.
And ‘she died young’, I was told by Margaret, another friend, pointing at the photo of the Dutch girl who had once described me as ‘very, very untidy’. As Else was some kind of anarchist, it seemed to me ridiculous then that she should notice or care about such things. Now I feel sad that she left us a long time ago.
In another photo, that features my own non-starring role, I can also see the hand of my future husband (bottom right), placed on the shoulder of the guy next to him. Note the black marks on its knuckles. This was the result of us joining in a student protest in March 1968, against Denis Healey was visiting Cambridge, and whose foreign policy displeased us. According to reports, nearly 1000 students turned out. ‘As he attempted to leave, they surrounded his car and lay down in front of it. As students threw themselves in front of Healey’s car, the police tossed them into the gutter, injuring many.’ (British Student Activism in the Long Sixties - Caroline Hoefferle) Chris wasn’t in the car rocking posse, but was charging down Trumpington Street with the student mob when he tripped, or was knocked down, and had his hand stamped on by a policeman. The marks didn’t go for years. I came away unscathed; I was always a lukewarm protestor, and backed off when there was trouble brewing.
Acting lunatics and joining in tumultuous protests seemed entirely separate activities at the time. Now I am not so sure. Both had an element of wild release, and a bitterness towards the establishment. In Marat Sade, M. Coulmier, ‘the bourgeois director of the hospital’ as played by Julian Fellowes, supervises the performance, accompanied by his wife and daughter. ‘He believes the play he has organised to be an endorsement of his patriotic views. His patients, however, have other ideas, and they make a habit of speaking lines he had attempted to suppress...’ A far cry from Downton, Baron Fellowes, but perhaps there is some strange connecting thread, relating to the aristocracy?
To crown this rather haunting experience of revisiting the time, Isabel sent me extracts from letters she had written to her mother at the time. I’ll paste them here, with her kind permission; they speak for themselves.
On 9 February 1968, she wrote:
“Sunday morning dawned bright and clear and I ventured forth to audition for the part of a mad woman in Marat Sade. I went to a rehearsal on Wednesday and we had to do the most amazing things. Still it was huge fun and like the man said – “What’s the point of a revolution without general copulation?”
On 14 March her mood was darker, but triumphant:
“The production of the Marat Sade has been going like a bomb. However, it’s terribly scaring and I spent the whole of Tuesday night having the most vile nightmares. I’m very proud of the fact that a large blow-up of a mad-me is adorning the window of Bowes & Bowes – FAME at last.”
The reference to the bomb is eerily prophetic, since the person acting the herald, was later imprisoned for blowing up the Post Office Tower in London.
I should add that most of us have turned out to be very nice people. Thank you, Isabel, Jill, Dominique, Sue, Chris, Bruce, Jane, Margaret, Tim, Jo, Pippa and all the others whose names I can’t quite remember, but who were great companions.
If you were around at the time, would you like to comment or add your memories?
Feast of Fools - an old Twelve Days celebrfation
So we’re into the Twelve Days of Christmas, a time I like to use not only for Christmas celebrations but for contemplating, going deep into that heart of darkness. Studies show that in Scandinavian countries, with their long hours of darkness, you are likely either to tap into your creativity at midwinter, or go crazy. Perhaps some of us do a bit of both.
It’s obvious that we’re in the darkest time of the year – those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, that is – but not why there are Twelve Days. And why, oh why, doesn't the sun rise earlier each morning, now that we’ve passed the winter solstice? Well, the two things are related. Because of the angle of the earth’s axis, and the elliptical shape of its orbit, there’s a strange anomaly: after we pass the shortest day of the year, around Dec 23rd, the sun will still rise later and later each morning until Jan 6th heralds in the shift to an earlier sunrise. So it feels as though the darkness is deepening, not dispersing.
In many cultures, these twelve days (actually a few more, but it’s genuinely twelve between Christmas and Twelfth Night or Epiphany on Jan 6th) are considered as time out. The Romans placed them outside the calendar itself, and the ancient gods of the Rigveda were said to rest for twelve days. In Germany all spinning must cease, so as not to offend the winter goddess Frau Perchta, and in England as in various other European countries, social order was overturned with the Feast of Fools and the reign of the Lord of Misrule. Finding a bean or a silver sixpence in your slice of pudding could elevate you to being King or Queen for a day! More poetically, the Irish said that ‘on the twelve days of Christmas the gates of heaven are open.’ But they also added an ominous twist: ‘On Twelfth Night, ‘the souls of the dead are thicker than the sand on the sea shore.’
The Twelve Days are a magical time, with many traditions of fortune-telling. The veil between our world and the invisible world of spirits is said to be thin. There is the opportunity to seek out knowledge, and discern what is to come in the year ahead. One method is to take each day of the twelve as representing a month of the year, and for instance, by studying the weather on that day, predict how the corresponding month will turn out. (I have tried this, with not very encouraging results…) Other divination rituals use candles, nuts and even the family Bible, to determine by word or action what will happen. More macabre practices involve watching out for the spirits of those who will die in the year to come, perhaps seeing them pass into the churchyard. Serious or a bit of fun, these rituals have embedded themselves in our Christmas traditions, whether it’s pulling crackers or playing board games, to see what fortune has in store for us.
The rich overlap of traditions, from indigenous folk traditions to the great rites of the Christian religion, all play a part in our appreciation of Christmas. The birth of the sun god, Russian Yarilo, or of Mithras, of Christ, is solemnised in worship, luck-bringing present ceremonies, and games and feasting that kindle a spark in the dark days of winter.
I love this period, and hope for fresh inspiration from it.
The Kaleidoscope Blogger
It’s nearly a year since I started this blog, and looking back over the range of posts covered, I’m startled by the variety of themes covered, from riding to family history, to Jubilee celebrations, to ‘going grey’.
Does this mark me out as a shallow butterfly? Or as a woman of many parts? (some of which are going grey). Well, I’ve always written on a spectrum of topics in my books, but the majority have been subjects close to my heart. They’ve been voyages of exploration that I’ve undertaken, sometimes for a particular length of time: my journeys to Russia, fifty-nine in total, took over my life for twelve years.
But there are deep threads that bind this together, and make a whole out of what might seem at first glance to be a disparate collection of subjects. Ancient traditions, and the myths of different cultures and religions have always been at the heart of my interests, along with folk lore, and personal narratives. Even as a sixteen-year-old I was plundering the Birmingham Reference Library for undiscovered folk songs in my spare time (how sad is that?), so I reckon I can claim that it’s ingrained! Methods of developing personal spirituality have been a part of my life since I was twenty: meditation, the cosmic ‘map’ of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, and the symbolism of alchemy all arrived on the horizon at about that time. Anything learnt and distilled from these traditions does, I hope, feed into what I write and how I teach, in terms of experience and little drops of wisdom that I’ve been given over the years. If spirituality remains completely apart from everyday life and work, it’s not doing its job.
Well, this is turning out to be more serious than I intended! What about the writer who tackles Princess Diana, internet dating, and the social history of shops? One thing leads to another, is all I can really say. Each has a story, and you may find the ‘back story’ in the books. But I only ever tackled one book whose subject held no interest for me (it shall not be quoted here) and it taught me a lesson. If I can’t work up any genuine enthusiasm for a project, best leave it alone, however tempting the offer may be. Though, believe me, for writers, really tempting financial offers are rare – so there’s not usually too much of a dilemma on that score. I love what I write about. But also, the moment may pass, and other themes may start to fire up my imagination. The Russian traveller has come in from the cold.
Sometimes a writer is expected to be a fountain of knowledge on everything she has ever written. The truth is that once it’s down on the page, it may disappear from the mind. I use my own books sometimes for reference. I was heartened to hear Peter Ackroyd, the noted biographer, say that he moves on with every new book:
‘Once the book is completed I tend to lose interest in it, it’s despatched into the world…I try not to pay much attention to it after its birth in the world… It’s just a question of moving on to the next thing.’
(Interviewer) ‘And do you remember what you’ve researched…?’
’No, I can’t remember at all… It all has to be evacuated in order to make room for the next subject, otherwise my head would be a sort of bedlam of voices characters and which it would be very difficult to control or discipline.’
Peter Ackroyd talking to Kirstie Young on Desert Island Discs Fri 25th May 2012
Oh Peter, I’m with you there!
So, to return to my theme, or my multitude of themes, I’m going to term myself a Kaleidoscope Blogger. Lots of pretty pieces which are forever shifting around, but which can come together to show a pattern. A true kaleidoscope image has a centre, and a symmetry. You can combine the pieces in an almost infinite number of ways, and come up with a different image each time. Order, chaos, colour.
Stay with me! There will be more to come. I may surprise you – and myself – with my next blog.
When is a Short Story like a Russian Box?
This article was originally written for the website of the National Short Story Week. The 2012 NSSW happens between Nov 12th - 18th, and you can read details of events, competitions, media broadcasts etc at http://www.nationalshortstoryweek.org.uk/
Taking writing tips from an unusual source
For twelve years I travelled frequently to Russia, visiting artists and craftspeople there. Why would a writer take up such a way of life? Well, this writer has trading genes too, plus an enduring fascination with traditional cultures and stories, which have provided material for several of my books. I found the combination of Russian legends and vibrant folk art irresistible, and I began a business with the aim of bringing Russian traditional arts and crafts to this country. While I made these trips, from 1992-2004, I spent as much time as possible in the four villages where the famous Russian lacquer miniatures are painted. There I talked to the artists and observed how they train and work. I should mention that this also involved celebrating with them frequently - at New Year, birthdays, picnics and just about any other occasion that was good for a shot of vodka and a few toasts!
To give a little background, these miniatures are beautifully executed paintings in tempera or oils, on a papier mache base which is usually in the form of a box. They are lacquered to finish which gives a depth of colour and a luminous quality. Mostly, they portray Russian fairy tales, and they have their roots in the art of icon painting. This gives them a timeless quality. But the art form needs a strong technique. Miniature painting is exceptionally demanding, and there is no room for anything surplus or irrelevant.
I’d like to pass on to you four specific ideas that I gleaned from these artists, and to suggest how they might be applied to writing short stories.
Shape your story carefully
The Russian miniaturist prepares a new composition with great care, usually by making at least one detailed sketch. He or she must be satisfied that it will work as a whole, and ensures that all elements are integrated, so that there is overall harmony.
In terms of the short story, it’s important to get the structure sorted before beginning the actual writing. Does it hold together as something with a beginning, middle and end, which can be written in a relatively short span? Does it have a narrative arc, and does every occurrence play a role in the story? There is no spare room for asides or diversions.
I recently interviewed author Roshi Fernando, who has written Homesick, a prize-winning collection of linked short stories. She exhorts writers to: ‘Plan, plan, plan! Understand where the story’s going. Even if you don’t know all the details, or it’s still hovering in your subconscious you need to have an idea of what’s going to happen.’
Roshi herself works by mapping out the stories on a large sheet of paper, connecting up ideas in a diagrammatic way, listing points to research, key themes and symbols, and incidents to include. This is her equivalent of the artist’s detailed sketch.
‘Every face must express an idea’
Sometimes there are many figures in Russian miniatures – perhaps twenty or more in a painting that measures only around 13cms across. The very best miniaturists make sure that every single one has a place in the composition, it, and expresses individuality. ‘Every face,’ as one highly-esteemed master told me, ‘must express an idea.’
In short stories, there’s a similar need to assess how many characters to include, and make sure that there is a genuine place for them in the narrative, even if they only appear briefly. They should not be over-characterised, but there has to be ‘an idea’ for each one which serves the story.
Create a combination of poise and dynamism
Unlike short stories, lacquer miniature paintings can’t usually tell the whole story (usually a fairy tale or historical myth) within the one image, so they have to pick one episode to portray. A crisis point is often chosen, but it has to have both poise and dynamism within that depiction. It must be active, but not hectic; we must see clearly what’s going on, but also have an intimation of what has come before, and what might follow. Here, perhaps, artistic technique doesn’t translate directly into writing, but we can draw from this the idea that anticipation and excitement must be built up, but that each moment should have its sense of grace and poise, a kind of clarity that is never overwhelmed by pace or action. We can savour each scene in its own right, while still being propelled forward in the narrative.
Acknowledging and using resources
Finally – although this might come prior to any painting or writing – comes the notion of placing oneself within a noble lineage. Lacquer artists study work that has already been created, and consider it a privilege to paint as inheritors of a tradition. The tradition includes the folk heritage which artists dip into for inspiration: fairy tales have deep significance, communicating ‘the wise thoughts of poor people’, I was told.
So, as writers, we need to investigate our own heritage. In other words, as Roshi Fernando tells us: ‘The only way that you can become a writer is to read - that’s the basis. Read every type of short story, and then experiment.’ Our literary sources may come from a wider range of eras and styles, but the principle is the same. And lacquer artists do experiment; they stretch the boundaries by trying out new colour palettes, contemporary themes – even space travel, for instance – and generally exploring their individual talents and interests. It doesn’t always work, and fit the genre, but that’s part of the creative process. We can take risks too, as writers, and sometimes, something marvellous may come from that.
This article was originally written for the website of the National Short Story Week http://www.nationalshortstoryweek.org.uk/ Copyright Cherry Gilchrist 2011
The second in an occasional series of posts about the Silk Road, a subject I’ve researched, lectured and written about extensively over the last twenty years. I’ve taken two trips along the Silk Road itself, and visited a number of Silk Road countries separately too – Syria, Uzbekistan and Turkey, for instance.
For nearly two thousand years, merchants travelled the Silk Road routes running from China to the West. Their best-known cargo was of course silk, but many other goods were traded between East and West, including wool, carpets and amber from the West, and mirrors, gunpowder, porcelain and paper from China. Merchants travelled in various groups and guises, from humble foot pedlars to huge caravan trains of camels, stretching literally for miles across the horizon. Other beasts of burden included donkeys, horses and yaks.
It was rare to travel the whole of the Silk Road during most periods of history. Bandits, border skirmishes and unreasonable customs officials made it difficult to trek all the way, so merchandise was often transferred from one group of traders to another en route. Many middlemen make for steep prices, so the final selling price of the goods was often hugely above their original cost. The terrain was difficult, often treacherous, involving high mountain passes, deserts, and severe climates. Just the fact of bringing merchandise safely from one country to another was a near miracle. Some groups of people excelled as Silk Road traders, one example being the long-vanished Sogdians of Central Asia, who were said to send their boys out along the Silk Road from the age of five, and were trading on their own account by the age of 12.
Along the way, merchants stayed at caravanserais. These traditionally consisted of a central courtyard, with water for the animals, and store rooms around the sides on the ground floor. Lodging rooms were on the upper floor, and the sturdy doors were firmly locked at night so that the merchants, their goods and beasts could rest safely. Some of these old caravanserais can still be found in Central Asian countries such as Turkey and Syria. They range from smaller, humbler versions to ones which are the size of cathedrals and almost as grand! At the very best caravanserais, there were proper beds, hot and cold water and even their own shops and banking facilities. Merchants preferred their caravanserais to be beyond the city walls, so that they could arrive and leave easily – the authorities preferred them in the town centre for the opposite reason, so that they could collect taxes due from the caravans before they had a chance to leave the district!
Play the slide show by clicking on first photo. There are lots more pictures hidden from view!
Many stories must have been swapped in the caravanserais, and both folk tales and religious ideas are known to have been ‘traded’ along the Silk Road. If two merchants came from opposite ends of the Silk Road, they could get by in conversation as long as they could each speak a Turkic language. These Turkic languages, spoken over a range of countries, are just about similar enough for people to understand each other, given a little help. One merchant might set up his conversation with another by starting off with an opening such as, ‘My conversation today will relate to camels’.
Other facilities along the way included ‘service stations’ where locals made a living from catering to travellers’ needs. Merchants carrying costly porcelain knew that they could get any breakages mended in Tashkent, for instance, and thus arrive with their goods at least apparently intact. The trade routes stretched from Xian in eastern China to Byzantium, branching off into practically every country in the Middle East. Some scholars claim that Venice was the final destination of the Silk Route – and some archaeologists even quote the UK as a credible terminus, as Chinese silk has been found in the grave of an Iron Age king.
Merchants traded their goods in the bazaars, which are still a feature of life in the Middle and Far East today. The Great Bazaar in Istanbul, named Kapali Carsi, is said to be the finest example of a medieval bazaar. It began as a small strong room, the Bedestan , built in 1461 and swiftly grew until finally it covered 100 acres, and now has 18 gates and about 4000 shops. All kinds of bargaining behaviour was evolved; complex negotiations might be done simply by hand gestures, carried out beneath the cover of a cloth or shawl to prevent prying eyes from knowing what deals were being struck. Bargaining today remains a key feature of the colourful bazaars of Central Asia and beyond, bazaars which still create fabulous, exotic displays to tempt their customers. The Silk Road no longer exists in the same way today, but its spirit is alive its traders and merchandise.
Read some of the myths and legends from the Silk Road in Stories from the Silk Road – Cherry Gilchrist (Barefoot Books 1999)
I’ve been undergoing a change of image over the last few months. Let me confess: I decided at the beginning of this year to allow my hair to revert to its natural colour. Or in other words, to go grey.
I hadn’t seen my natural hair colour in its entirety since I was in my early thirties. Which is, well, quite a long time ago. I remember my parents coming to visit around the time I started to use artificial colour, usually henna then to cover up a few grey strands.
‘Have you dyed your hair?’ asked my mother, staring at me suspiciously.
‘No of course she hasn’t,’ my father snapped at her. ‘Cherry would never do anything so stupid.’
My dark brown hair, with natural touches of red, was in fact a mix from this black-haired father and red-haired mother – the latter reflecting her Welsh Owen ancestry, in which all family branches that I know of have red hair somewhere in their particular family line. I and my hair colour were one, so to speak. I wanted to keep it as it was, so I started to use first henna, then packet colours to hide any unwanted deviation from the original.
I was not the best of home stylists, and when the bathroom began to resemble a slaughterhouse due to my inaccurate aim, I decided it was time to let the professionals take over.
Before I knew it, I was on an expensive treadmill. At the last count, it could be up to £85 for a cut and colour every five or six weeks; my hair grows fast. Any longer without the treatment, and unwelcome, deadening grey would start to show through. I had no idea exactly how much grey I had, though the current hairdresser of the time would give me a percentage count after scrutinising me from all angles.
‘It’s still pretty dark at the back. But 80% grey overall, I’d say.’
Cheery words, and ones that didn’t encourage me to give up my habit. I was worried about looking too old if I let it go, but when I began to envy friends who had never gone down this route, and who looked absolutely fine with white, silver or streaked grey in their hair, I realised that this was telling me something.
One evening about three years ago, when I was attending a conference in the States, I strayed into a late-night bookshop for a read, having nothing much else to do, and picked up Anne Kreamer’s ‘Going Grey’. This is possibly the only book at all on the subject. I read most of it standing propped up against the bookcase, which is not a criticism of the book, but more an indication that I was avidly gulping down its contents. Grey, she says, is one of the last taboos for women in this modern age. A high percentage of women are horrified at the thought of going grey, and, if they do, they can suffer discrimination in public and at job interviews. However, the author also quotes her own experiences as she allowed herself to go grey which suggests that in other areas, she was considered to be more genuine and even more attractive once she’d abandoned artifice.
The pros and cons seemed to hang in the balance, though, and I decided to wait. But by the end of last year, I felt enough was enough. My eyebrows didn’t match my hair colour, and my hair colour didn’t harmonise with my skin tone. I didn’t want to pay huge sums to maintain an illusion that was definitely getting past its sell-by date. I wanted to be me, and I was prepared to take the risk.
This time, I bought my own copy of Kreamer’s book and studied it more carefully. It became an ally, a rare encouragement to go the way nature intended, more or less.
I also found help in my kindly hairdresser, who plainly had her doubts about my taking such an unpopular step, but agreed to work on toning in the existing colours in my hair with any regrowth of grey, silver, indeterminate dark or whatever else turned up. I was fortunate in that my last dose of dark hair colour faded very quickly, and I never went through a kind of magpie effect as the hair was growing out.
It’s nearly there now. I have blonde streaks which blend in beautifully – and I think I’ll keep that going as a regular boost to my sense of appearance. It will only need doing every three months or so. I’ve also received plenty of compliments of late on well how my silver/blonde/dark mix suits me. I’ve had to put certain brighter colours to the back of the wardrobe – but – yippee! – I can now wear lavender, pale and acid greens, and other pretty, subtle colours that simply made me look washed out before. OK, so there have been one or two people who haven’t recognised me, but I soon put them right. You know who you are.
And it’s taken me a while to recognise myself again, but now I do, and I’m happy and proud to be that person. To be the age I am. And what’s that? Ah, it’s a little too soon to start giving that away! More than 35, anyway.
So what about all these pictures that I’ve been supplying to publishers, websites and universities in connection with my work for the last ten years? I’m afraid they have to go. Which is why today’s the day I start changing my photo. On my website, Twitter, Amazon and all the other public places…..I feel secure in where I’m at – but please don’t dump me just yet because of my grey hair! You won’t, will you?
Do take a look at the previous blog post – a short homage to the horses in the form of three haiku poems ‘All we know is that when man first came to the Camargue, there were white horses and black bulls.’ So says Brenda, an Englishwoman who has been breeding Camargue horses for many years, and she should know. The white horses are almost the trademark of the area, groups of mares and foals left to roam over wide stretches of salt marshes, which are fringed with reeds, copses of pines, and at this time of late summer are covered in a froth of pale mauve sea lavender. Carefully selected stallions service the mares, while those not chosen for breeding are likely to be gelded and used for riding. The ‘guardians’ are the real riding elite here, the men who tend the bulls and tame the horses, but ordinary horse-trekking is where we’re at, in a group of riders ready to set off for the sea, some ten miles distant. Has our recent riding prepared us for an all-day trek? Are bottoms, backs and thighs strong enough to withstand around six hours in the saddle? Even the most experienced rider (I’m making a come-back, Robert is putting in his training hours) can end up sore if out of practice. We’ll see. We help to catch and groom our mounts, Loulevain and Garrigan, along with half a dozen other riders from different parts of France. Saddles are Western-style, which means you ride ‘long’ in the stirrups and loose with the reins, using only one hand. The horses are bred bigger than they used to be, and can go up to 15 hands or so, to cope with modern-sized riders, while still keeping the Camargue stamina, colour and character. Our leader Caroline (pronounced Caroleen), gives us a brief explanation of the riding style, and warns us that horses may eat before, after, but never during the ride. We must go single file along roads and when cantering, and if anyone is in trouble they are to shout the universal command ‘Stop’! ‘Do not hang onto the reins, if you are afraid,’ she says. ‘Non. You have a thick mane to hold onto.’ She speaks in French unless we ask her to repeat in English. Good for improving my French, but I’m sometimes a touch confused when she releases a string of commands, each one faster than the last. The ride takes us first along tracks sheltered by tall bamboo and fronded reeds, and through open flat fields that remind me of East Anglian fens. The difference being that here we pass herds of black bulls, and see white egrets take off in flight as we approach, sometimes followed by the majestic upward sweep of a heron’s wings. We follow dykes and small canals, trace old paths along a watery margin or sometimes have to ride single file by the side of busy roads – my least favourite part. French drivers seem to give horses little quarter. But off the main road, drivers slow, smile, and wave as we go by. Everyone wants to see white horses in the Camargue! The horses go steadily, with confidence; they must be ridden well but can be trusted to do their job The biggest surprise of the day: we take the horses on a car ferry! Leading them onto the roll on/off flat bottomed boat, the Bac de Sauvage, we become stars for a while. Astonished passengers whip out their cameras. The horses stand placidly as we cross the Petit Rhone, and then form a beautiful cavalcade once more as we re-mount, white manes and tails flowing, necks strong and flexed, hooves neatly lifted in walk, trot, or a ‘galop’ – there is no specific French word for ‘canter’. ‘Avancez! Avancez!’ Sebastien’s horse is pounding the water with his front hoof. We’re riding through a shallow lagoon, the safe track marked out by long poles plunged at intervals into the mud. This may look like a charming circus trick, but the rider is inexperienced and does not know that this is horse talk for, ‘Water! Great – I’m going to roll in it.’ The cries of, Caroline, urging the rider to move on, are in vain. The horse drops onto its front knees like a camel, back legs following and Sebastien has no choice but to bale out in the water. Luckily, all he gets is a dousing, and the horse is brought back onto his feet before he has a chance to roll and, potentially, break the all-important ‘tree’ that holds the whole saddle together. Now we’re into the real ‘marais’, with its marsh, mud flats and shallow ‘etangs’ such as the one we’ve just ridden through. There is a sense of primitive wildness, and a kind of collective awe descends on our company as we near our destination. We are trekking onto a private beach to which only local residents can get access. The view now opens up; the scene changes from one of eerie stretches of reed, mud and water, to Sunday picnic time on a Mediterranean beach. Not crowded, but not empty. Brenda is already there with a pick-up truck and a trailer that blossoms into a kind of snack bar; from its counter she dispenses couscous, ham, cheese and apples, along with cool, cool water – it’s hot out here – and wine rose and red for those who wish. But always see to your animals first. The horses are tied up in a long double row, girths slackened, bridles off, where they can doze during a well-earned rest. It’s been nearly three hours getting here. Swim, eat, swap stories, and mount again for the – aagh – three hours back again. Actually, it is not so bad until just a few miles from home when some prefer to dismount and walk and others of us try to flex and stretch our stiff thighs. The girl in front of me is a comedienne, trained in theatre arts; she does a series of acrobatic poses on her pony to exercise her muscles. Robert takes his right foot out of the stirrup to ease cramp. ‘Non, non, non,’ barks Caroline crossly. ‘I want that you come back alive. Garrigan, he is bit stupid in the head.’ Robert, I think, has settled Garrigan remarkably well. He may not be the most experienced rider, but his calm and relaxed attitude goes down well with horses, and Garrigan has changed from being a fretful head-tosser to a steady and gentle ride over the last couple of days. We are all glad to have had a two hour ‘balade’ yesterday, a warm-up in preparation for the all-day ‘randonee’ today. My horse, Loulevain, has been excellent. He is willing and reliable. His only bad habit is that he’s an accomplished thief, snatching an illicit bite to eat when my focus is elsewhere. I have had to pull a whole leafy bamboo cane out his mouth at one point. In the same way that cats wait until your attention is elsewhere before they jump on your lap, so Loulevain bides his time till I am dreaming or chatting to my neighbour. Then he lunges towards the verge and has a mouth stuffed with leaves before I’ve a chance to shorten the reins and kick him on. Still, I’m glad he isn’t totally predictable. We amble through the small, charmingly ramshackle village of Astouin, a cluster of cottages in the Camargue fens, and then we’re back. Drink, horses – you’ve earned it. And so have we. Next day we are a little stiff, but nothing terrible. The only battle scars on us both are where the mosquitos have managed to bite us through jodphurs and jeans respectively; we’ll spray every inch of ourselves in future. Ride at Brenda’s (local farm, with accommodation and equestrian centre) at http://www.brendatourismeequestre.com/. Takes novices and experienced riders, also bring your own horse. Our two day stay cost around 214 euros per person, including two nights b&b, plus dinners and a picnic lunch, a two hour ride and an all-day ride.The next post has my haiku homage to the horses. Too much alliteration already! But please do take a look.
Three haiku, for the
White Horses of the Camargue
Toss your manes, pick paths
through salt marsh, feathered reeds, lagoons.
Carry us to the sea.
As the sun rises,
Your hooves follow secret ways,
made in ancient times.
Gleaming white, you pass
through pale sea lavender, to
reach the water’s edge.