We’re witnessing a changing of the guard, of sorts, voters on the Left seeking leadership not from traditional, moribund political parties and personalities, but from voices that are usually consigned to the fringes. It’s a clear indication of how disenchanted people have become with mainstream politics when you see parties of the far Left and (more worrying) the far Right polling higher than usual, their gains coming at the expense of liberal and conservative mainstays.
In my home province of Saskatchewan, our Left-ish party, the New Democrats, are embarking on a leadership campaign. There’s a growing discussion among party members as to whether the new leader should be more electable and pragmatic or someone not afraid of showing their ideological roots.
As we see some of the familiar faces on the social-democratic scene either retiring or losing popularity, we must ask ourselves: what would it take to reinvigorate the Canadian Left, what policies could we emphasize that would reflect our socialist roots and values, distinguishing us from the candidates stubbornly hugging the middle of the road?
I recently sat down, wrote up my ideas and circulated the resulting mini-essay among progressive friends and associates. Their responses were encouraging so I’ll reproduce my “manifesto” here—needless to say, I welcome your comments and critiques.
* * * *
In light of the upcoming leadership campaign and the electoral vulnerability of the Sask. Party, the question arises: will New Democrats seize this opportunity and seek to renew the Party, embracing a bold, progressive legislative agenda…or will voices within the existing hierarchy and executive council encourage a safer, more prudent approach?
Will we sharply distinguish ourselves from the Brad Wall regime and their discredited policies or will we water down our platform, putting forward the kind of mild, middle of the road initiatives that British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn derisively dubs “Tory lite”?
Do we, as New Democrats, defend or condone a continuation of the status quo (with a few minor tweaks here and there), are we going to choose electability over idealism, pragmatism over passion? Are we willing to sell our principles down the road for a chance to sit in the Big Chair?
Many commentators speak of a “democratic disconnect”, a loss of belief in democracy among voters in Europe and America, and it’s clear a large portion of the blame rests with the major political parties. They have put in place command and control structures that limit policy debate and minimize the opinions and influence of ordinary party members. They’ve created a bureaucracy more interested in maintaining power, raising money and serving their corporate masters than it is enacting reform or making the system more humane and transparent.
Much has been made of rebuilding from the grassroots…but how is that possible without ceding them some genuine power, a say in Party decision-making? Annual political conventions are fine, it’s a great chance to mingle and meet old friends, but what practical purpose do they serve if none of the resolutions put forward by the membership are binding or carry any kind of clout? Rather, they are perceived by the executive and caucus as helpful suggestions, a chance for members to exercise their conscience on the issues of the day.
Surely any kind of talk for renewal must include allowing the Party general membership more input on direction and focus.
I suspect part of the problem is that the membership is much more progressive and socialistic than the Party poobahs would like. That’s why the Party leadership makes such profound efforts to derail or disallow potentially divisive or controversial motions and ensure that any that do pass have little or no impact on overall policy or strategy. I would love to see thresholds set so that when a motion achieves a certain amount of support from the general membership, it automatically becomes part of our platform—a process that would revitalize the grassroots and help address that democratic deficit I referred to earlier.
The Party hierarchy has made considerable efforts to address gender and racial disparity within the NDP governing councils, but they have yet to extend representation to those who are struggling in the “new economy”, working class men and women who have no benefits, no safety net; low income earners and “wage slaves” condemned to debt peonage, with little chance of improving their circumstances. Their kids won’t be going to college or trade schools. We pay lip service to representing and championing such people—but where are they in evidence within our councils of power?
Instead, we have a situation where a class of well-paid, well-educated professionals set policies and priorities for the Party, individuals who have little grasp of the day-to-day reality facing the working people and precariously employed of this province.
And what is the ideology of these affluent NDPers, a bloc that Marx called “bourgeois socialists”? Would they be willing to enact initiatives that harm their own interests, take coin from their purses? Will they support efforts to democratize the Party and, in so doing, lose power and influence?
For most Canadians, government isn’t the problem—but poor governance or governance that favors the wealthy elite certainly is. Government shouldn’t be perceived as an enemy of the people, but a body created to serve them, reflecting their collective aspirations.
We can address this point through ideology. We show the citizens of this province that an NDP administration would protect their interests and remove some of the anxieties and frustrations they must deal with on a daily basis. We offer the reassurance of cradle-to-grave health care and guarantee the highest possible educational standards and the opportunity for everyone, regardless of means, to improve their minds and enhance their future prospects.
The Sask. Party never shied away from ideology, why should we?
And we know from polling and discussions with our fellow citizens that there is strong support for socialistic policies like state ownership of critical resources and services. When Wall and his cronies floated the idea of dumping some of our Crown corporations, the message they received was loud and unequivocal: hands off.
I believe most people in this province would support progressive taxation—the Tories make much of the notion that the economic burden must be shared equally, but I disagree. Why should we speak of proportionality when some of us are living in the best neighborhoods, enjoying the best services, with all the requisite toys…while the rest of us are told we must pull up our socks, economically speaking? Those who have more, must pay more: in income tax, property tax and “luxury” taxes on their expensive vehicles, cabin cruisers, so-called “McMansions”, as well as the “rustic” cabins they own that are more like vacation homes. A levy applied to profligacy and conspicuous consumption—how many here would argue against that?
Finally, let us take back ownership of the vocabulary of the Left. The word “socialist” is not a bug bear, trotted out to scare the children—but that’s the way it’s treated by our counterparts on the Right and their hired media stooges. Even some of us fall prey to it: “Socialist? Nossir, not me…”
We must reclaim that word and numerous others as well, and do a better job at educating today’s work force about the history and tradition of socialism and the labour movement, the great gains made by courageous women and men who put their lives on the line so that ordinary people might live in freedom, security and dignity.
“For the many, not the few.”
Are we, as a Party, prepared to live up to that ideal?
Do we have the courage to act on our high-sounding moral principles and convictions?
* * * *
NDP Election Platform (2020):
1) Raise minimum wage and enact more legislation to protect worker rights and improve workplace safety.
2) Introduce progressive taxation, whereby those that have more, pay more: a higher proportion of their income and a “luxury tax” on high end goods (expensive cars, McMansions, vacation homes on the lake, cabin cruisers, etc.).
3) Dramatically reduce tuition costs so that post-secondary education is within the means of every resident of the province.
4) Ensure, through legislation or an amendment to our provincial constitution, that our Crown corporations and essential resources (like water) are owned in perpetuity by the people of this province and cannot be privatized.
5) Impose tough environmental standards that deter polluters through legislation, punitive fines and jail terms.
6) Begin the immediate transition out of the thrall of fossil fuels, investing in renewable/alternative energy to the extent that within 8-10 years we are national leaders in that field, our dependence on carbon-based fuels dramatically diminished.
(Phase I: Ban on fracking)
7) Improve relations with First Nations/Metis people through partnerships, shared initiatives; the failure to consult with Aboriginal leadership and treat them as equals devalued and marginalized them and we must make vigorous efforts to win back their trust and participation in the decisions affecting them.
8) Develop more subsidized or low-income housing—build quality homes for those in need…
9) …while pursuing and prosecuting slum landlords, anyone who knowingly provides sub-standard shelter to desperate people.
10) Work in partnership with the federal government to provide a “basic annual income” to every resident of the province/country, investing in our people rather than offering billions in subsidies to multi-national corporations that damage the environment, pay low royalties and taxes, while offering their employees as little as possible in terms of wages, benefits and job security.
Because later this afternoon my youngest son and I will be driving in to the City (Saskatoon) in order to see Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” on the big screen. I’ve been a fan of the Tark’s for ages and to have the opportunity to view his work on something other than a 32″ television is a temptation too good to pass up.
A few announcements to get out of the way, some housekeeping to tend to:
This Saturday, June 17th, as part of the W.I.P. Dance Series at the Free Flow Dance Centre in Saskatoon (224 25th St. W.), Jackie Latendresse’s group will be performing several new works-in-progress, utilizing some of my ambient music. Doors open at 7:30 and the performances start at 8:00. Interested in modern, creative dance? Drop in for a look…and a listen. For more info, see here.
If you’d like to experience some of my odd, spacey music, check it out either here or on BandCamp.
Snapdragon: A Journal of Art and Healing recently published a poem of mine (now there’s a rare occurrence). You’ll find “Covenant” on page 67 of their latest issue, read it here.
* * * *
I don’t have a lot of friends.
My social network is pretty limited, the time I can devote to cultivating friendships—phone calls, writing letters and e-mails—almost nonexistent. What can I tell you? I’m a pretty driven fellow and creating things (novels, stories, paintings, short films, music) is the central, defining focus of my life.
Those few pals I do have are acquaintances of long standing, people who have proven they can put up with my temperament and endure my frequent and lengthy silences. If you’re looking for a high maintenance relationship, you’re scratching at the wrong door (my wife will confirm as much).
I got to know Gord Ames in the early 1990s.
I think we were still living in Iqaluit at the time and came back to Regina during the summer to visit family. I’d heard about the new bookstore on 13th Avenue and, of course, the bibliomaniac in me was dying to see it.
I wandered into Buzzword Books, casting a glance at the fellow behind the counter, who gave me a nod. No ebullient welcome, no attempt to strike up a conversation, no friendly banter.
Then I realized why.
The books said it all. The longer I spent in the store, the more I loved it. It wasn’t a big space but the selection was absolutely wondrous. No commercial crap or braindead best-sellers.
Real writers: Alexander Trocchi, Richard Ford, James Crumley, DeLillo, Pynchon, Harry Crews, etc. etc. etc.
Once I’d taken the store’s measure, I approached the counter with two or three books and raved at the bookseller on the quality of his stock. He offered some droll, funny response, and a friendship was born.
Sadly, the bookstore is no more and Gord and his wife Caroline have moved to the West Coast (might as well be Mars, sigh). But they’re still an important presence in my life, two unique spirits and true blue, dyed-in-the-wool characters.
It’s Gord’s birthday today and this morning I want to pay tribute to a man who is a friend, mentor and a valued confidante. The breadth of his knowledge, the sharpness of his wit, never cease surprising and astonishing me. His taste is exceptional, his editorial eye (and ear) peerless. He’s turned me on to so many brilliant authors, musicians, film-makers over the years, drawing my attention to obscure, forgotten talents I would have otherwise overlooked. How would I have managed without him?
That rare combination of intelligence, erudition and caustic, irreverent humor—you just don’t find that in too many people these days. My friend is a pearl of exceeding value and uniqueness; a one-off, a mutant, a genius.
Happy birthday to a man who is a daily reminder that the world is not as foolish, arbitrary and ugly as it seems. There are still men and women whose very existence serves to reassure us: though we may have descendants among lower order animals, we still possess minds and virtues that can defeat our humble origins…and carry us to the stars.
Gord Ames is my friend.
And for that, I will never, ever cease being grateful.
You’re one in a trillion.
“True friendship resists time, distance and silence.”
I spent some time this past week mulling over CEO Trump and his corporate cabal, now legally installed as overseers of the United States of America.
Some bad times ahead, but as Sun Tzu observes: “Opportunities multiply as they are seized”. Progressives, those seeking the emergence of a New Left, must put forward platforms and alternatives to counter the agenda being pursued by the one-per-centers and their archons. Merely lying low for the next four years, waiting for the Donald to implode is not an option.
I wrote my thoughts down in an article I’ve titled “The Thing at the Bottom of the Stairs”.
It’s an unequivocal call to arms, a refusal to be cowed by the thugocracy Trump intends to impose on his nation and the rest of the world.
Click on the link below to read the article:
* Thanks to Gord Ames for proof-reading and commenting on this article.
I’ve posted my views on Donald Trump’s election on social media, Tweeting and Facebooking…but then I started hearing from folks that while my little quotes and snippets were nice, some deeper analysis was necessary. There were some not-so-subtle hints that I was shirking my duties as resident curmudgeon and unrepentant Leftie. Surely I had something more substantial to say…
And so, to make amends, I offer a longer response, a piece that makes the shocking assertion that the Donald’s occupancy of the White House might be the best thing that could have happened to the political Left.
That made you sit up and take notice, didn’t it?
Read this…and feel free to offer your own opinions and reactions:
“So tribe on tribe, pouring out of the ships and shelters,
marched across the Scamander plain and the earth shook,
tremendous thunder from under trampling men and horses
drawing into position down the Scamander meadow flats
breaking into flower—men by the thousands, numberless
as the leaves and spears that flower forth in spring.”
The Iliad (Translated by Robert Fagles)
It almost didn’t happen.
I mean, it was that close.
I’d checked into some bus tours to Troy before we left home. I knew there were day trips from Istanbul and they weren’t cheap. But we decided to wait to actually book the Troy excursion until we got to Turkey—I think we held out hope that our hosts would know the best and cheapest method of getting there. In retrospect, maybe not the wisest course of action.
As it turned out, neither of our Istanbul hosts had contacts in the travel industry, so with the help of Sherron’s cell phone (and a good wi-fi connection), I started searching for tour operators that included Troy in their itinerary. There were a few and, as I feared, they turned out to be quite pricey; indeed, too pricey for my tastes. I started pondering the possibility of leaving Turkey without seeing the plain of Scamander and the remnants of the Scaean Gate—I have to say, it didn’t sit well with me.
I read Peggy Albion-Meek’s The Great Adventurer, a young adult re-telling of the story of Odysseus, when I was nine years and was enraptured.
The prolonged siege of Troy figures prominently in the book, the wily King of Ithaca responsible for coming up with the scheme that finally breaks the stalemate. Other famous figures put in appearances and I soon developed a loathing for the haughty Agamemnon, while cheering as the god-like Achilles hacked his way through half the Trojan infantry, displaying a bloodlust that made even the mighty Hector quail before him.
Troy, needless to say, holds a special place in my heart. I’d put it right near the top of my “bucket list”. But it seemed like fate was intervening and unless I was willing to pay an arm and a leg, Troy might be out of reach.
Then, a sudden breakthrough.
A communication from one company confirmed a coach was available, quoted a fee that seemed reasonable…was I interested?
The mode of conveyance was a comfortable Mercedes mini-bus, extra spacious because there were only about six or seven other people accompanying us (most of them bound for the nearby the Gallipoli battlefield, not Troy). It was a lengthy drive, down the Anatolian coast, and at one point we had to ferry across the Dardanelles to get to Canakkale on the other side, where a different bus was waiting to take us the rest of the way to Troy.
And there it was. And there I was, standing amidst the weathered, crumbling remains of a place I’d dreamed about since childhood. Well…
A peak moment. Who would’ve believed it possible?
Because of the iffy political situation in Turkey (see: previous post), tourists were in short supply and, except for a German documentary film crew, we had the site all to ourselves.
Uran Savas is the most engaging, charming, knowledgeable guide I’ve ever encountered. Uran combines a winning personality with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of Troy and its physical environs—he knows every square foot of the place. Uran led me around the extensive ruins, which span thousands or years, each layer revealing insights into the lives or ordinary Trojans and their ruling elites. In all, there were at least ten separate cities built on this site, ten separate eras represented. Uran could point out sections of wall denoting each of these eras, his erudition and quick wit constantly in evidence. Despite the blazing heat, he set a leisurely pace, not hurrying, pausing to point out certain landmarks or patiently respond to my seemingly constant questions.
Sherron hung back, taking pictures, including one of my favourites, where I’m touching a portion of a wall that dates back to Homeric times. That’s a keeper.
As a bonus, Uran introduced me to a good friend, the man who happens to be in charge of the on-going digs at Troy, Dr. Rustem Arslan. He answered a couple of my stammered queries and posed for a picture with us, before hurrying away, back to his duties.
End of a perfect day. Oh, except for that interminable drive back to Istanbul. All and all, it amounted to a time-consuming, wearying interlude—let’s see, we were picked up around 5:30 a.m. and dropped off back in Istanbul shortly after 10:00 p.m. Wow. Time-consuming, indeed.
We left Istanbul the next day, after ten days so confident of our grasp of the city’s commendable public transportation system we travelled to Kemal Ataturk International Airport via cab, ferry, bus and monorail, arriving on time and hardly frazzled at all.
We flew out of Istanbul shortly before 5:00 that afternoon. I realize I’m skipping a lot in this account, due to space constraints (like dealing with the persistent, ingenious carpet salesmen or meeting the remarkable Emin Senyer, a preeminent performer of Karagoz shadow puppet theatre), but that’s unavoidable. We must push on to Prague.
Yes, Prague. By reputation, one of the most beautiful cities on the continent. Boasting every modern convenience while, simultaneously, possessing a lengthy, storied past, the region frequently playing a crucial role in 20th century European politics.
One thing we immediately noticed was that it was a lot cooler and drier than Greece and Turkey. Almost like back home.
Prague was the one city both Sherron and I had at the top of our lists when we were planning our proposed Grand Tour of Europe. We felt drawn there, for a variety of reasons. To me, it’s the home of Kafka, Hrabal, Meyrink and the Capek brothers. A veritable hub of surrealism and the macabre and ground zero as far as alchemy and the black arts are concerned.
For my dear, puppet-crazed wife, Prague’s status as one of the world’s hotbeds for hand-carved wooden marionettes, not to mention innovative theatre and film, made it an irresistible destination. And there was one other attraction:
We spent over a week at a small penzion a half-hour from Prague, where Sherron took part in a workshop led by Michaela Bartonova. Michaela has a long and impressive résumé as a puppeteer and master instructor. Her students come from around the world to work with her and learn from her methods. This year’s attendees included participants from Canada (us), Israel, Spain, Hungary. And they were all sweet, wonderful people; we bonded with them, had many great, raucous conversations after each day’s session was over.
While Sherron was off designing and carving her creation (from linden wood, the Czech Republic’s national tree), I kept myself busy by journaling, reading, writing poems and hanging out with Zsolt–whose wife Aggie was taking the workshop for the second year in a row–and their kids, Philip and Heidi. We had a ball together and the week seemed to zip past.
I think the only thing we didn’t manage while we were in Prague was catch a glimpse of Jan Svankmajer, the legendary Czech animator. It would have been delightful to spend an hour or two in his studio or watching him at work on his latest effort, an adaptation of a Karl Capek story that was financed through crowd-sourcing.
Visiting Kafka’s grave and the museum in his honor were high points, as was the hour or so we spent in the Communist Museum (more properly titled The Anti-Communist Museum). Trying my first shot of absinthe…guzzling Czech beer…seeing a genuine Toyen painting…
A stop of the Millennium Gallery (not far from the Kafka Museum), introduced me to the work of Jiri Sozansky. Ondrej, a fellow fan of the macabre, showed me a number of prints by Sozansky, briefing me about the artist, a man who deliberately inhabits the far fringes of Czech art; I couldn’t resist bringing one of his pieces home with me. Very disturbing, unnerving stuff; not for all tastes. Search him out, he’s amazing (you’ll find one of his short films here).
What I won’t miss are those wicked, uneven cobblestone streets. For a metropolis renowned for being “walking city”, Prague’s city fathers couldn’t have picked a worse road surface. After the first few days traipsing around, my lower back and hips were in rough shape. Stretching and anti-inflammatories helped, some.
That said, I’ll put up with the cobblestones, endure the natural surliness that seems to be part of the Czech national character, I’ll even forgive the less than thrilling cuisine—
But how do they tolerate the tourists?
Yes, the tourists. Out of the various spots we visited in Europe, they were at their worst in Prague (particularly in “Old Town”). Swarming and pointing and gawping and barking at each other in a dozen different languages and dialects–and you could tell what they were saying always amounted to little more than: “Lookit that, honey, ain’t it neat?” Snapping selfies at every opportunity, imbuing each and every street corner or jutting steeple with significance. I was seated at a small diner and watched as a tubby, rather bookish fellow a few tables away took a picture of himself with his plate of food.
Selfies at a wall dedicated to the memory of John Lennon. Selfies in Wenceslas Square. Selfies framed in front of one of the innumerable castles or cathedrals…
I hate tourists and tried very hard never to act like one. We usually shunned areas where there was a high concentration of idiot foreigners but sometimes they were unavoidable. Streaming down the winding, constricted sidestreets, moving in groups, often consulting handheld gadgets, heads swivelling back and forth, eagerly seeking out the next attraction or point of interest.
Prague, you old whore
coquette of Mitteleuropa
adorned in gothic finery
enduring the rough pleasure
of marauding hordes
secretly derisive of their
offering your best
most familiar features
while assuring each of them
you’ve never done this before.
Every so often, Sherron and I would consciously try to slow things down, take a moment, seat ourselves on a bench or at an outdoor café and just look around, absorb what we were seeing, the little details that we might revisit later, in recollection. Trying to retain the strongest possible impression of that locale, that instant in time.
Who knew if we’d be able to manage another trip of that magnitude? Was it likely, given our financial situation? And maybe that’s why for us it was never about rushing around, patronizing all the usual tourist traps, checking them off our list and then moving on. Never stopping to reflect, experiencing Europe on the fly, through the window of a car or bus, doing our level best not to interact too much with the locals…
Interact we did, chatting with folks from every walk of life, people who quite often weren’t shy about sharing their views with us, once they realized they had an attentive, appreciative audience. We tried to be open, receptive, patient…and were rewarded with some memorable encounters and exchanges. Mustafa, one of our guides on the bus to Troy, so passionate and knowledgeable about Middle Eastern history, comes to mind; and what about Anke and Dick, Alex and Suzanne, Michaela and Ralph and Uran and Zsolt and Aggie and Emin and Ali and Eva and so many others. They shared their stories with us, welcomed us into their lives and homes, offering fresh perspectives, opinions that often didn’t jibe with what we were hearing back home.
That is the greatest benefit of traveling to a distant land and no virtual environment, no documentary can come close to emulating the experience of physically being there, at Mycenae or Epidaurus or Troy…or even buying bottled water from a cheerful vendor not far from Galata Tower.
Feeling the ground beneath your feet, hot sun directly overhead, the welcome chill of the plastic bottle against your skin. Knowing this is real, an authentic moment.
Turning to each other, clasping hands, conscious of the adjacent funicular tracks. The vendor wants to know where we’re from.
“Canada?” He grins. “Very far. Welcome! Welcome!”
Bidding us good day and waving once we’re underway, another smiling face, another encounter to add to our scrapbook, situated alongside brochures, ticket stubs and a smooth, streaked pebble collected from the beach at Kiveri.
Mementos, when photographs no longer suffice.
The final two lines of my travel journal, composed upon our return to Canada:
“For a time, I was able to forget who I was, see the world through young and innocent eyes. What do you call that, except a blessing?”
I note with chagrin that I didn’t concoct a single, solitary blog post for the entire month of September.
I don’t think that’s happened before, has it?
I confess I spent a considerable portion of the thirty days in question trying to process the sights, sounds, smells, etc., of our trip to Europe. Did a lot of reflecting and maybe a tad too much navel-gazing. Paged back and forth through my travel diary, reading passages to pique my memory, skimming through the hundreds of photos we took.
You have to understand, Sherron and I had been planning this trip for at least a decade. That’s a helluva buildup…but that month we spent in Greece, Turkey and the Czech Republic far surpassed our expectations and became, for both of us, a life-altering experience.
The pictures help but they can’t possibly capture or accurately portray the many, many special moments, the brief, chance encounters, the sense of what it felt like to be so far from home, so far outside my comfort zone. The locales ranged from the exotic and sublime to the grimiest backstreets. From the ancient world to a 21st century traffic jam.
I am a reluctant traveler, preferring to remain as near to my personal omphalos–this office where I am presently typing–as I can manage. Right here is the center of my universe, the place I feel safest. When I step across its threshold, venture outside, I am no longer in control. And the anxiety grows…
But I was determined to overcome my fears and apprehension; the time had come to expand my horizons. Full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes…
Unfortunately Air Canada got things off to a bad start. Our flight to Toronto was delayed for mechanical reasons, which meant we missed a connecting flight that would have taken us directly to Athens. Instead, we were re-routed to Heathrow, where we had to linger for six hours before we were finally on our way to Greece. So we arrived later than expected and once we were dropped off in central Athens promptly got ourselves lost and—
Never mind. We’ll skip those initial rotten bits and instead focus on getting to our quaint little Air B ’n B apartment and the view from our balcony. The Parthenon at sunset. And not just a postcard either: the real thing. We hugged each other and captured the moment with a photograph while Alex, our host, looked on in approval.
Greece in mid-July is hot. Really, really, really hot. Sherron and I are from Saskatchewan, remember? We weren’t prepared for that fierce Attic heat. Climbing the Acropolis on a day when the temperature topped 40+ degrees Celsius was not one of our smarter moves. Definitely not recommended for the faint of heart or those subject to heat stroke.
The bones of ancient Greece are in evidence all through its longtime capital. The skeletons of structures that have survived barbarian invasions, earth tremors and thousands of years beneath that harsh, unforgiving sun. The numerous excellent museums trace and name the epochs of a land inhabited since pre-history, wreathed in myth. I saw the famous funerary mask of Agamemnon (discovered by Schliemann) and posed beside a bust of Marcus Aurelius. There were some magnificent pieces at the Cyclades Museum; I was moved and inspired by the austere beauty of carved, stylized figures from the fourth millennium B.C.E. If I could have one piece of art for my collection:
Believe it or not, after three days we’d had enough of Athens and were on a bus south, to a small village called Kiveri. Friends from Saskatchewan kept a summer home there and had graciously offered to not only share their abode but also shuttle us around to other sites of interest, including Mycenae (Agamemnon’s palace and burial chamber), Thermopylae and Meteora.
Now you’re likely familiar with the first two place names I mentioned, but Meteora probably doesn’t ring any bells. The area features some amazing geology, pinnacles and steles of rock thrust into the air by massive tectonic forces. For fifteen hundred years, monks and ascetics have come to these stone towers to find refuge from the temptations and trials of the physical world. At first they built crude shelters in the eroded caves and crevasses; later, they came together, scaled those lofty peaks with ropes and ladders and built the first monastery, others rising up on adjoining fingers of rock in the centuries to come.
I can’t tell you how inaccessible and daunting some of these monasteries still appear today, even with all our modern roads and conveniences. But those mad, stubborn monks hauled and toted tons of rock and wood to the tippy-top and built themselves impregnable sanctuaries, redoubts against the evils that resided in the land far below.
Varnavas was one of the first of the hermit monks to arrive (7th century). One night at our lodging in Meteora, encouraged by the proprietor’s generously large scotches, I wrote this:
I am here
if I err
if I fall.
From Greece, it was off to Istanbul, despite the recent coup attempt and the oft-expressed misgivings of friends and family.
Istanbul, coup or no coup, is a craaaazy place. Crazy and huge and bursting out all over with life and energy. The first time I heard the local muezzin call the faithful to prayer, I was standing on the balcony of our cozy rented apartment—what a beautiful sound. I knew at that moment we’d made the right decision to come. The fellow in our neighborhood had amazing pipes; it gave me goosebumps as I listened to that voice emanating from mounted loudspeakers, echoed and magnified by his colleagues in nearby districts.
I think of Istanbul and I recall the passages that led to impossibly narrow streets; I think of the sheer mass of people that a population of twenty million souls represents. And I shudder when I remember the absolutely insane cabdrivers, who sped through the streets, honking their horns, oblivious to any life forms that ventured into their path. Those dudes rarely applied their brakes and seemed positively contemptuous of pedestrians. Once, when Sherron and I were walking near the Gallery of Modern Art, we witnessed a brawl between two cabbies, a melee which quickly attracted the attention of the police. Their customers looking on in bemusement as the two men glared at each other, shirts ripped, fists clenched, cursing and gesticulating, the cops wisely keeping them separated. Murder in the air.
There’s so much to see in Istanbul—this is a city that has played a central role in many important historical episodes; it has witnessed the rise and fall of great empires, flourishing and suffering by turns, the fate of any Eternal City.
We visited the magnificent Aya Sofia (aka Hagia Sophia), commissioned by Emperor Justinian and intended to be the most magnificent place of worship in the known world. The very quality of light seems different there—the way the beams penetrate from outside, imbuing the interior with a regal, exalted ambience. It was impressive to us but imagine the effect on pilgrims from bygone times, men and women from rustic, humble origins who were bound to be moved and awed when they walked through those massive doors and saw…this:
Aya Sofia, the Basilica Cistern, the Blue Mosque, the Hippodrome, the Grand Bazaar (with its famous book market)…so many different places to explore, each possessing its own special atmosphere and claim to fame (or infamy).
And then there was Troy…
(To be continued)
During the summer, I tend to favor faster, more plot-driven narratives–thrillers, mysteries, noir—but once the leaves start turning, taking on brighter hues, I seek out more somber, atmospheric efforts.
John LeCarré, for instance, is the perfect fall read. His complex novels, populated by morally compromised characters and deep, dark secrets, are well suited for cooler, drabber days and nights. British novels, in general, are better enjoyed during autumn and winter than they are brighter, cheerier times of the year. Ian McEwan and Hilary Mantel aren’t really appropriate for the beach and only a complete fool would pack Orwell or Rushdie in with the suntan lotion and towels.
Glancing at my bookshelves, I can tell you in an instant which books match each season.
Contemporary Fiction (Spring-Summer)
Literary Fiction (Autumn)
Historical Fiction (Summer)
Biography and History (Winter)
Science Fiction (Summer-Autumn)
Critical Essays/Creative Non-Fiction (Winter)
Breaking it down by individual author: Jim Harrison (Spring); Cormac McCarthy (Autumn); Jonathan Franzen (Spring); W.G. Sebald (Autumn); Colson Whitehead (Autumn); Richard Russo (Spring); Raymond Chandler (Summer); Don Delillo (Autumn); Alastair Reynolds (Summer); David Mitchell (Spring-Summer); Italo Calvino (Autumn-Winter); Denis Johnson (Autumn); Thomas Pynchon (Autumn-Winter).
There are exceptions, of course, cases where those generalizations don’t apply. Works relating to politics, ecology, religion and philosophy are sprinkled throughout the year. And every so often I can’t resist plucking up some big, fat biography (ex: Robert Caro’s magisterial portrait of Lyndon Johnson) and just having at it. A two or three day binge that leaves me disoriented, out of step with everyday life. Barely able to prepare and eat a five-minute boiled egg. And, no, I do not exaggerate.
It’s become sort of a tradition that I tackle a real forearm-strainer right after Christmas and heading into the New Year. The kind of tome you have to bench press. Hardcover, if possible. A single volume history of World War II or the collected essays of Christopher Hitchens. To counteract the effects of all that turkey, red wine and good fellowship.
Tell me I’m not alone, that someone else out there has to deal with their own version of Seasonally Adjusted Reading Disorder (SARD). Perhaps we can start our own support network, help each other overcome our entrenched habits, learn to read what we want, when we want.
Oh, and, by the way, did you hear there’s a new LeCarré book out this month.
Wouldn’t you know it?
You might call that a coincidence but I’d say it’s right on time.