Notre-Dame of the Craftsmen

I’m sitting at my friend Penny’s kitchen island, sipping a glass of wine and catching up on accumulated news and gossip, when news flashes on my phone screen.  Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris is burning. I read it out loud, incredulous. Penny turns on BBC News and in silence and shock, we watch the flames destroy the vaulted Medieval roof and spire and threaten the two front towers and the famous rose window between them. Millions of people are having the same reaction, although not everyone is silent about it. Twitter is going mad.  On the TV, people of all ages have gathered by the Hotel de Ville, the Paris town hall across the river from Notre-Dame. Many are weeping, their tears illuminated by the glow of the fire. We watch the spire fall, the roof disappear. We hear commentators saying that it might not be possible to save Notre-Dame at all. We go to bed not knowing what will happen. Will Notre-Dame be nothing but a pile of rubble tomorrow morning?



Wikimedia Commons

Later, I remember my first visit to Notre-Dame, when I was 11 years’ old.  My family and I were spending a few days in Paris. We all love history and art, so Notre-Dame was one of the first items on our ‘Essential Sights’ list. I have a habit of wandering off when I’m in a group, and protected by the beautiful pillars and vaults of Notre-Dame, I drifted away from my parents and little sister. I was staring at the light filtering through the stained glass rose window, when I overheard a conversation a few feet away from me.

“The master of works – what we’d call the head architect today – commissioned masters from the various corporation of builders and craftsmen. Every corporation had its masters, who were the top specialists in their craft.  They engaged other skilled workers called journeymen, as well as training apprentices in their craft.”

An old man was talking to a boy of roughly my age. I edged up to listen and he stopped and smiled at me.

“You want to know how they built the cathedral, 800 years ago?” I nodded vigorously. “Come on, then, join us.” And though I’d been warned more than once not to talk to strangers, I didn’t think of refusing. Besides, the other child seemed OK, for a boy.

“Are you a historian?” I asked.

The boy corrected me. “My granddad used to be an architect specialising in conservation and restoration”, he said. “I’m going to do the same thing when I’m grown up.”

That afternoon, I heard how the stonemasons, glass cutters, carpenters, sculptors had all imprinted their stamp on their work, even though we didn’t know all of their their names. Their skill lived on in the stone, the wood, the glass, the buttresses and vaults, the statues and the carvings. It was as strong as the faith that had inspired the cathedral. Stronger even, as the faith had dwindled from its height in the 12th and 13th centuries, while the beauty and power of the craft lived on.


Villard de Hannecourt, sketches of Notre-Dame carpentry, 13th century.


From that time, I’ve seen Notre-Dame not as an inanimate old building, the legacy of a time of all-pervading faith, but as a complex and vibrant organism created by skilled craftsmen and masters, who poured in their skill, their artistry, their love and their sweat into every chisel mark, carved leaf, every coloured and cut piece of glass. Those who created the cathedral between the 12th and 14th centuries. Those who continued, modified or added to it between the 15th and 17th centuries. Those who wept at its decay in the 18th century. Those who turned what was a Gothic miracle of architecture and engineering into an Enlightenment Temple of Reason during the French Revolution. Those who repaired and restored the neglected church in the 19th century, when they rebuilt the fallen spire and made it much taller than the original Medieval steeple. Thousands of workmen, skilled craftsmen, designers, artists and architects passed on thousands of stories in their sketches, materials and the work of their hands. Before I fall asleep that night,  I can’t help crying for the old architect and for the generations of craftsmen who together built the marvel we know as Notre-Dame of Paris, and whose work could be lost forever.

Over breakfast, we find out that the 400 or so firefighters battling the flames brought the fire under control, having saved much of the structure – including the two towers and the rose window. Notre-Dame would be rebuilt. A new generation of architects and craftsmen would bring their living skill, their art, their vision, their love and the sweat of their hard work and embed it in stone, metal, glass or wood. The old architect’s grandson, if he fulfilled his childhood ambition and followed in his grandfather’s path, must be at the height of his expertise and career by now. Perhaps he’d be involved in the restoration of Notre-Dame? I can’t help hoping that he would.

Colour Blind Din


Photo by Brent Cox on Unsplash

There was a colour-blind artist who loved to tramp through swamps and paint the moon. She painted purple skies and orange grass and the sea forest green and blood red. Wherever she looked, she saw what others saw not and stole it for her canvas. She roamed and painted at night, because she said that colours and shapes had so much more power in the dark, when only night vision and madness can see them. She saw many things, but she heard very little: for she was also deaf and whirled up into her own thoughts, which imposed themselves, like trumpets, on the words and songs around her.

As a result, she had a wide vision but no hearing and her paintings shouted out in the silence of crimson stars

 – look at me!

The first flight of English fantasy


a large bird approached and then

entered her room. It looked like a hawk

but unlike most birds it could talk.

The creature alit on the chamber floor

and folded its wings. Then, before

her eyes, it changed its form…

This poetic story is more than 800 years old, and a woman wrote it.

The poet known as ‘Marie of France’ lived and worked in late 12th century England.  We don’t know her real identity, only her first name. In one of her pieces, she tells us that that she is from France, but her main writing language was Anglo-Norman, a kind of franco-English dialect used by the educated people in England from a generation after the Norman Conquest until the 14th Century.  This suggests she came to England as a child. As well as Anglo-Norman, she knew Latin, Breton and the language that became Middle English.

She wrote a form called lais – a cycle of twelve narrative poems of courtly love, featuring powerful and passionate women, the men they loved and the men that persecuted them (usually horrible old husbands!).  She was also a translator. She adapted Aesop’s Fables from Middle English into Anglo-Norman, several texts from the Francian (the French spoken in France), and Latin texts. Because of her popularity at the court of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and her intimate knowledge of it, she might have learnt Occitan as well,  the language of the troubadours and jongleurs who arrived in England with Eleanor.


Her stories are filled with fantasy and fantastical elements – instances of faery intervening in human affairs, strange coincidences, dark, Gothic passages.  She started a literary tradition in England of fantasy and gothic literature that continues to this day.

Yonec is one of her loveliest lais. In the passage below, a sad lady prays for deliverance and happiness, when a hawk flies in through her window:

Yonec, translated into modern English by David R. Slavitt

The poor girl’s eyelids, as she prayed,

were closed. But, then, at the moment she made the sign of the cross and said Amen,

a large bird approached and then

entered her room. It looked like a hawk

but unlike most birds it could talk.

The creature alit on the chamber floor

and folded its wings. Then, before

her eyes, it changed its form to that

of a noble knight — exactly what

she had been praying might appear.

She was stricken nonetheless with fear

and she covered her eyes. But into her ear

the creature spoke: “Be not afraid,

for I am the one for whom you prayed.

I mean you no harm. A hawk, as you know,

is a noble bird. I swear this is so,

and I also swear that my love for you

is as ardent and steadfast as it is true.

I have never loved another but I

could not come to you save by

your invitation. I heard your words

floating upon the air where birds

soar and swoop. And now I am here.”

Yonec – in the original Anglo-Norman language.

Quant ele ot fait sa pleinte issi,

l’umbre d’un grant oisel choisi

par mi une estreite fenestre.

Ele ne set que ceo puet estre.

En la chambre volant entra.

Giez ot es piez, ostur sembla ;

de cinc mues fu u de sis.

Il s’est devant la dame asis.

Quant il i ot un poi esté

e ele l’ot bien esguardé,

chevaliers bels e genz devint.

La dame a merveille le tint ;

li sans li remue e fremi,

grant poür ot, sun chief covri.

Mult fu curteis li chevaliers,

il l’en araisuna primiers.

’Dame’, fet il, ’n’aiez poür,

gentil oisel a en ostur,

se li segrei vus sunt oscur,

Guardez que seiez a seür,

si faites de mei vostre ami !

Pur ceo’, fet il, ’vinc jeo ici.

Jeo vus ai lungement amee

e en mun quer mult desiree ;

unkes femme fors vus n’amai

ne ja mes altre n’amerai.

Mes ne poeie a vus venir

ne fors de mun païs eissir,

se vus ne m’eüssiez requis.

Or puis bien estre vostre amis ! ’


Soul of the rose

When Eros, the god of passion and sexual love, wed Psyche, a maiden whose name means ‘soul’, the daughters of Zeus, the Hours and the Graces, scattered roses about the land and made all glow with the beauty of the rose. The soul of the rose is the marriage of the erotic and the spiritual, the alliance of the physical scent, silk velvet and intricate folds of the rose with its intangible powers of seduction and compassion.

Waterhouse, The Soul of the Rose

The other day, as I smelled one of the late roses growing in my parents’ garden, and later, my small bottle of precious rose otto oil, I caught a powerful  scent of pepper.  One of the chemotypes of the rose, eugenol, is  also found in peppercorns, cloves, cardamom and many spices, as well as in carnations.  But chemistry will only bring us so far into the soul of the rose. That whiff of pepper carried me, as on the Poniente wind, from a small rocky garden on a hillside in Andalusia across the seas to ‘a land of spices’, the island of Sri Lanka, which I explored with my parents when I was ten years old, just before the war.  There I saw my first black pepper vine. From Sri Lanka, I flew to a small coffee stall in Basra souk, where an ancient man served me a coffee laced with cardamom and sugar, right next to a spice shop overflowing with wares from all over the Arabian Peninsula, the Horn of Africa, India and beyond. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man hold a rose to his nostrils, breathing in deeply. It 2003, in the middle of the war, and Basra had just fallen to the British Army.  In that small gesture, in that strong-scented rose, there was not a whiff of war.

rose in our garden, Andalusia.  Photograph: SN

After that war, and after another, I settled in my home city of Geneva for a while, in a flat on the 9th floor overlooking Mont-Blanc. I grew herbs, tomatoes and roses.  Below is one of my favourite roses –  one of most fragrant in the world,  with a voluptuous  scent of Rose de Mai with a hint of lemon,  the Bolshoï, a hardy hybrid tea rose named after the famed Russian ballet company.  I grew several bushes of it and they thrived for many years, filling my home with their powerful smell of love, dance, sex and spices.

Bolchoi rose, grown by me.


in the garden of the Generalife, Alhambra, Granada.

Then there were canals with does planted by them,
does that were hollow, pouring water,
sprinkling the plants planted in the garden-beds,
casting pure water upon them,
watering the myrtle-garden
treetops fresh and sprinkling,
and everything was fragrant as spices,
everything as if it were perfumed with myrrh.
Birds were singing in the boughs,
peering through the palm-fronds,
and there were fresh and lovely blossoms–
rose, narcissus, and saffron —
each one boasting that he was the best,
(though we thought every one was beautiful).

from The Palace and The Garden, Solomon Ibn Gabirol, Al-Andalus, 11th Century.

I came to Andalusia by twisted pathways, but once here, I fell in love. With the land, with the people, with all the living things here, and with the stunning Alhambra palace and its gardens, poems of fountains and damask roses set in geometrical shapes and, in the North-east of the gardens,  against a semi-wilderness.

Pink-gold Damascene roses_Alhambra

The Alhambra, for all its beauty and majesty, was the dying glory of a brilliant transplanted civilisation, al-Andalus, known to us as Moorish Spain. Knowing that makes its roses all the more poignant. We can’t know the Soul of the Rose without accepting, loving even, the heartbreaking transience of roses, which reminds us of our own. No sooner do they bloom than they start to fade, their scent wafting away in the breeze. After the most beautiful rose has died, its soul remains, a memory of its  smell – soft or powerful – of the satin touch of its petals against our fingers and cheek, of its delicate architecture, a love that refuses to die, a sadness that will not be consoled, a vibrancy that gives fully of itself in attar of roses and all the great perfumes created from it, and fills the land with roses.

We are so very little, as my friend the rose
Told me this morning.
“At dawn I was born, baptised with dew-drops
I blossomed, happy, in love.
In the ray of the sun, I closed for the night and woke up old. 
And yet I was beautiful, yes, the most beautiful
rose in your garden.”

…. We are so very little, and my friend the rose
Died this morning. 
The moon in darkness kept a vigil for my friend,
But I saw her in my dream, lighting up the nights
Her soul was dancing well above the clouds,

She smiled at me.
Believe me if you wish
But I need to hope, or I am nothing,
Or else so very little. 

The Somme of the EU

bloody somme
1st-2nd July 1916 – 1st-2nd July 2016

battle_of_Somme_06This morning a hundred years ago, they counted the dead after 24 hours of the Battle of the Somme. In the British Fourth Army alone, there were just under 20,000 – mostly young men. By the end of the battle, in November, when nobody had won, over a million young men, British, French, and German, had lost their lives, and many more were badly maimed, physically and mentally.

At the same time, between February and December, another battle was fought in Verdun. A little over 300,000 young men died, and a catastrophic amount were maimed.

When the First World War ended, everyone said ‘Never Again’. But they put no mechanism in place for ‘Never Again’, it was all just fine sentiments. Instead, Germany was imposed punitive war reparations and conditions that beggared it and led its people straight into the arms of fascism.

It’s hard to credit it, but the Second World War, fought within what would have been the lifetime of the 1,3 million young men who died in those few short months in 1916, made even more casualties – three or four times as many as the whole First World War, civilians and soldiers.

At last, between 1945 and 1958, the European powers came up with a mechanism for ‘Never Again’. They decided to replace rivalry and war with trade and political union. “Better bickering over bananas than killing each other”. “Better work together, in each other’s countries, than kill each other, in each other’s countries.”  In the Preamble of the 1957 Treaty of Rome, they put it like this:


“Determined to lay the foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe,

Resolved to ensure the economic and social progress of their countries by common action to eliminate the barriers which divide Europe…


It was Britain’s huge misfortune that despite the encouragement of Churchill, the man who got Britain through the Second World War, its Labour government of the time turned a cold shoulder to the project. By the time Britain asked to join in 1962, De Gaulle vetoed its entry (in passing – he was a bloody ingrate!). But eventually, in 1972, we were admitted, and welcomed in to take part in this great enterprise of trade and political union.

Now, after 44 years during which many of our British politicians kept up a fence between ‘them’ and ‘us’, years that nonetheless delivered cooperation between old enemies and mutual economic benefits, we are leaving this union. We are turning our backs on the longest period of peace our continent has ever known. We are turning our backs on the idea that it is better to work in each other’s countries than kill in each other’s countries.


Yesterday and today, all over the country, and in France and Belgium there have been commemorations for the million dead at the Somme, and the 20,000 young British soldiers who died in its first 24 hours. Official speeches, unofficial events in public places, flash mobs, readings on the radio, documentaries on television. We remember them. We say we honour them.

The_Battle_of_the_Somme,_July-november_1916_Q1540But do we honour them? I am no longer sure. What honour are we giving these young men, who fought for a better world, a world where cooperation replaces bullying and militaristic flag-waving? How do we honour them, when we are leaving the European Union, an organisation specifically founded to replace war and nationalistic rivalry by trade and political cooperation, and leaving because there is ‘too much immigration from Europe’. “Too much immigration from Europe” implies both that we are not a part of Europe — that we are, somehow, not European — and that this foreign, non-British ‘Europe’ is sending us foreigners we don’t want, we who sent our young men to fight, bleed and die in that very Europe.

For the 20,000 British young men who were killed on the first day of the Somme, for the million who died during the whole battle, for the many more that died during those 4 awful years, and, 23 years later, during the 6 years of the Second World War, I am in deep mourning. In mourning for them, and for our having left the European Union, a project for peace and unity – made not only with words and sentiment, but with action.

I doubt our leaving will lead to war. It is already leading to recession, and the Bank of England anticipate a 6% contraction of our economy, which is catastrophic. But no, not war. Not yet. What it will lead to is our European partners never again trusting us, and that is the beginning of the slippery slope towards war. We have let them down, we have let ourselves down, and we have told them – “peace doesn’t matter, the only thing that matters is keeping Polish, French and Romanians out.”

And controlling our own future, you might ask? Leave voters voted for that ideal. Well, to give George Bush Sr’s answer back in 1992, when he lost to Bill Clinton: “it’s the economy, stupid”. Our ability to control our future has taken a nose dive with the pound.


Never Again

A true story

Lake Malawi
Lake Malawi

Even from the air Malawi is a lush country, especially now in the rainy season, when it thickens with growth, undergrowth, and mirages of plenty. As far as I can see, small fields laid out like patchwork cover the land. Trees grow densely, in every shade of green – cassava, pumpkin, banana, baobab.

I think of the children I would meet tomorrow, all refugees, and the endless questions they would cast at me, desperate challenges for which I would have no answer. The modest would ask for more food, medecine, pencils. The bold would want visas for the developed world. The frantic, a passage for “anywhere outside this accursed continent”. I could only offer them messages to a faraway relative, leading, perhaps, to a reunion, perhaps – miracles do happen – in Paris, London or Montreal.

The next day I drive to a small refugee camp called Dzaleka with Anthony, an NGO official. He is easy-going, sings as he drives, and recounts stories of his grandfather, the witch doctor, who would fly from Nyasaland to South Africa in a minute. Like all of Malawi in this season, the camp is half hidden by solid stalks of maize and banana groves that hide the concrete administrative buildings and mud houses. Have I come to a garden, where I expected a refugee camp? But here is the Malawian administrator in his bare dusty office. Here are the UNHCR posters on the cracked wall – so they do visit here from time to time! – and the Red Cross table calendar on a plywood desk overflowing with yellow papers.

Dzaleka is considered a small, back-water, forgotten camp, for most refugees a way-station or a hiding place. The camp population has grown steadily to accommodate the flow of Congolese refugees. The administrator says that the Congolese are the first to go back. “As soon as there is a lull in the fighting, they rush back, unless they have personal reasons not to, or they are waiting for resettlement abroad. We have great trouble persuading them to stay while danger persists. The Congolese are crazy. They are not allowed to work here, but they still do business. Some have come with bicycles and cycle to Blantyre every week to sell goods!” There are older refugees in Dzaleka, too Rwandans, Burundians, even Somalis, each with their own desolate memories.

Anthony tells me that in the old days, under the dictator Dr Hastings Banda, Dzaleka had another name and was used as a political labour camp. It was a place so notorious that those people who emerged alive used to swear, upon leaving, “dzaleka!”, which means, “never again!” in Chichewa. Now the camp hosts people who have fled other horrors and have in turn sighed, or screamed, “never again!” in Lingala, Kiswahili, Kinyarwanda, Kirundi.

I spend the day speaking to children and young men. We sit together in a small school room. No class today, it seems: they have morning or afternoon school twice a week. French and English pratice sentences decorate the classroom. “La porte est fermée. The door is closed”, “The bird is flying. L’oiseau vole”, with drawings of a blue door, a sparrowhawk soaring. The benches creak under the weight of so many people. The arrival of a Red Cross musungu kazi, white woman, is news that has spread throughout the camp as fast as Anthony’s grandfather. I haven’t been in a schoolroom for 15 years. I crunch myself on on one of the tiny desks – they didn’t used to be so small, did they? Anthony sits at the back. He does not understand the conversations in French, but smiles gently, unperturbed by the waves of passion that overtake the classroom periodically. Only once does he intervene, when a row erupts between several boys vying for attention. I don’t know if they understand his scolding Chichewa, but his tone calms them.

Men and boys have gathered around me, with only three girls amongst them. I am told the other girls and the women are cooking and working their small vegetable patches. I ask the assembled refugees a few questions to which many answers fuse all at once. What energy is there! The energy of survival, of anger, but also a life-force that not even war has dimmed.

Il ne fait pas bon être nègre” , Papy says, a thin twenty-five year old, who still bears signs of Congolese panache – la Sape – in his swagger and his well-kept purple jacket, a size too large for him.

“How can you say this? how can call yourself that? ” I ask, the brutal colonial word screeching against my nice liberal mind.

“But it’s true, isn’t it?”, he answered, “isn’t Africa called le continent nègre? Who cares about it? There’s a generation of young growing up illiterate in the Great Lakes because of the war, we live in insecurity at home, the girls are raped, and if we leave, we are corralled in camps, underfed, just kept alive. A kilo of beans a month! And for what?”

“Everyone wants you to go home.”

“I have no home left, he says bitterly. The Rwandan army burnt it down, and occupied my town, they’ll pick me up if I go home because I took part in student protests. And now, we are kept away from your countries. You can visit Malawi, Zimbabwe or Congo. But can we visit England, France, Canada? You have studied, haven’t you, to get this job? Can we go to university, buy books, earn a decent living in an interesting job? Or any job? Can we even eat a decent meal? What have you come for today? Africa is dying and we les nègres are dying with it. But you did not come for that. ”

He is deliberately baiting me now, using that word as a weapon, daring me to resist him, to place my reason in the way of his anger. I search for words, and see myself, instead. My clothes are new, I ate breakfast this morning, I use a reasonable voice which keeps a proper distance between the refugees and me, the way I was taught when I took this job. Then as fast as the storm erupts, it shifts, whirling me along: “How do I get some books? We are setting up adult classes with some refugees that are teachers – we have no paper, but we can always write in the dirt, Africa has plenty of that.” “I want to join my brother in Spain, my uncle in Brussels. I want to go back to Goma, to Kisangani” (How did someone from Kisangani land here? I wonder). “I want to find my wife before I forget what she looks like.” In another change of tone, they cajole me: “Are you married? how old are you? Will you ever marry? But not a refugee. We know that! None of us have anything to offer you.” They are daring me again.

I talk, I laugh, I battle with them for what I will and won’t do – “just give us the means and we’ll do it for ourselves”. These are not the aid degenerates dear to the armchair critics, nor are they victimised losers. These are gifted, truculent young men who would be an asset to any country, in bright curiosity, in bravado, in impudent sexiness, now intense and rimmed with sadness, because it’s practically all they have left. Perhaps it’s true that hardship concentrates the mind, sharpens the talents. In European and African towns, Congolese refugees prosper in many ways. Some become law professors, writers or musicians. Some sell Prada bags – fake and genuine, as long as it has a label – or set up smart scams. None sit down and weep about their fate for longer than a Koffi Olomide love song.

And the children? After all, I came for them. There are still many Rwandan children, left over from the great flight of ‘96, when the refugee camps in Zaïre and Tanzania were dispersed by the Rwandan Pariotic Army (RPA). A few refugees ended up here, in Dzaleka, after thousands of miles of walking, from forest to forest, bush to bush, camp to camp. Dzaleka is just a stage on an endless journey. Some still limp. I can hardly imagine what they must have seen, the memories they heave silently about like bundles on their heads.

Dzaleka Refugee Camp

These Rwandan children in Dzaleka have had no real carers for years. Most can’t read or write, because they haven’t received any regular schooling. How can there be education where there is no continuity or discipline? Somehow they are surviving. They are hard, unripe fruit. I give a handful of sweets and receive a smile. A few words in kinyarwanda, and it is a laugh. But I have no idea how they live, nor what future there is for them. They live without any sense of time. There are those whose parents we have traced and whom I’d like to send home. Suddenly thrown back in time, they take fright and refuse to look beyond Dzaleka, prefering the safety of the half-life they know to the uncertainty of going home and settling down with a family they have forgotten. Several children do not believe that their parents are really alive. They remember seing them killed. “But look at the photo. Do you recognise your mother here?” Twelve-year old Ephrem looks on silently. He nods, tears pour down his cheeks. Embarrassed to be crying in front of me, he moves to a corner to compose himself. He murmurs something to his cousin, who speaks some French. “He has recognised his mother. But he is still not sure it is safe to return.”

Many of the other children and teenagers are traumatised. Congolese war, Burundian war, Somali war, all have left scars. Jean-Pierre from Bukavu in Eastern Congo can barely see, he closes his eyes downwards and refuses to look at the world. I learn that two months ago, he saw his family sliced up by the rebels, because his father wrote a letter of support for the government in Kinshasa. He was outside the house when they came, and hid in the hen coop. Calliste, a thin young Burundian, streams sweat and shakes like a blade of grass. His mother is Tutsi, he says, and his father Hutu, and both communities want his blood, even here in Dzaleka.

Some should be traumatised and are not, another mystery. There is a calm, slightly worried-looking seventeen year-old Congolese boy who has been father and mother to his four little brothers and sisters since the age of fifteen. Two years ago, their parents were killed by the Mayi-Mayi, naked hunter-warriors who started off as resistance fighters and ended up perpetrating massacres, like most participants in that dirty war. He and his siblings fled their home town, Uvira by Lake Tanganyika, returning after three months. As they grew older, the Mayi-Mayi renewed their threats. One day, six weeks ago, he came home and found the death-sign of the Mayi-Mayi daubed on the front door. He picked up the children and ran, this time from the country. “I am worried, because I have no money for the little ones. My elder brother is in Canada and could help care for us. We can’t go back, the Mayi-Mayi want to wipe out our family”.

There’s a story in that, but I’ll never know it. His eyes give nothing away but immediate concern for the future. All he wants is help in getting organised. He writes a Red Cross message for his brother in Canada, gives me the latter’s email address and takes down the address for the nearest Canadian High Commission. Some of the Congolese laugh around him, one boy drums on his desk, one gets up to dance the ndombolo. The Rwandans and Burundians look on, immobile.

Anthony and I drive back to Lilongwe exchanging impressions. Some we can help, others not. Some will find their own way, some will compromise their dreams, some will give up. Many will refuse to give up, and shout out “never again!” Dzaleka. I am angry at the neglect, the waste. The North expresses guilt about the oppression of Africa: but what is killing Africa now is not only oppression and exploitation, it is indifference. L’abandon. That’s what they call it.

Papa Wemba
Papa Wemba

Back in Lilongwe, Papa Wemba, rumba king from Congo, is singing Le Voyageur (the Traveller) on the radio:

Bolingo Lingo Eponi Ekolote

Lingo Lingo Mboka Te

Lingo Lingo Mundele Te

Lingo Lingo Moyindo Te

Love has no country

Love has no village

Love has no Whites

Love has no Blacks

When I left the camp, not one person forgot to wish me a merry Christmas and happy holidays. A year later, sitting in an office in Kinshasa, I received a letter from the young man who looked after his four brothers and sisters. They had reached Canada.

For reasons of discretion, names have been changed. 

The Sweetness of Living



It’s Sunday in the old town of Marbella. All around us, Spanish couples and families are tucking into this sweet soul food, some dipping their churros in hot chocolate in the traditional way, others balancing their deep fried treat with a fresh orange juice. Next to us, a large family of 8 children, varying in ages between eighteen and three, with their parents and a silent North European nanny, are sharing several trays of churros, the older children chattily showing the younger ones how to enjoy churros without getting hopelessly covered in grease, sugar and chocolate. Sunday churros are a Spanish institution, as established here as the Sunday fry-up in England.

In the past, I’ve avoided Marbella in summer, disliking huge crowds. But the old town, the casco antiguo, is another world, away from the in-your-face glamour of Puerto Banus or the clipped greens of golf courses. It is unmistakably Spanish, Andalusian, and wears its history with lighthearted pride.

Fountain by the Plaza de los Naranjos

Fountain by the Plaza de los Naranjos

Far from having been the plain fishing village some people think it, Marbella seems to have been a commercial and tourist settlement from the time of the Phoenicians.  These restless travellers established trading posts and small colonies all along the Mediterranean coast in the 1600s BC, doing business with the local Iberians and, no doubt (as their Lebanese descendants do today), enjoying the sweetness of life in this Western Mediterranean haven,  bringing a whiff of raffish adventure that never left Marbella. A few centuries later, and animated by the same spirit, Greek traders and mariners established commercial posts and a settlement.

IMG_20130811_121155The Roman presence in Marbella is attested by parts of the later Moorish walls, which reused Roman engraved stone. It is likely to have been a holiday and rest destination for the Romans in their rich Cordoba province. Marbella’s microclimate is surprisingly soft and temperate – cooler in summer than nearby towns, including other seaside towns, and warmer in winter than the rest of Western Andalusia.

Plaza de los Naranjos

Plaza de los Naranjos

The Moors settled Marbella and fortified it against attacks from the sea, building an Alcazar and a mosque, which became a church after the conquest by the Catholic Kings, surrounded by a maze of narrow streets – those same narrow streets that Mara, Elisa and I are ambling along after our churros. But it is the Castillans who brought Marbella old town its beauty. Knocking down some of the streets, they built the Plaza de los Naranjos, Orange-Tree Square, and the palace of the mayor, which is still the town hall of Marbella. They extended the network of streets up and down towards the sea, and building more and smaller squares and a handful of churches. Unlike the gawdy baroque they inflicted on some other Andalusian cities, they transformed and expanded Marbella with a light touch, using  a mix of mudejar and baroque styles, which marry seamlessly.

IMG_20130811_121131It’s the Golden Age of Spain in summer dress, East and West blending, just as today, the Arab, Russian, Sefardi, Italian, British and Spanish residents or tourists mingle easily in the streets of the old town, along the paseo maritimo, in the yacht club, golf clubs, night-clubs and housing estates of this pretty courtesan of the Mediterranean.

Street scene, old Marbella

Street scene, old Marbella

Then, as now, the streets were lined with shops, old-fashioned toy shops, clothes shops, small fruterías, glassware, tourist souvenirs. Unlike in most of Spain, even during August, many of these shops are open on a Sunday. People on holiday  spend money and shopkeepers can’t afford to miss a day of trade during these days of economic stress.

My friend Mara moved to Marbella from the Granada coast two years ago, establishing a home for herself and her daughter in the foothills of Sierra Blanca, right under a mountain called La Concha, the seashell. Even the mountains are on holiday here. When I asked her why she had moved, she replied – ‘because here, it’s beautiful, people are polite and gentle, life is sweet.’ Before spending time with her, I had this idea that Marbella was essentially foreign and a philistine, culture-free zone. This turned out to have been a false impression, as many others I had about Marbella. Wherever we go, Mara points – here is a concert hall, there, an art gallery. Tomorrow we might attend the opening of an exhibition over there. The writer Antonio Gala lives in a house in this typically Andalusian urbanizacion, Antonio Banderas – a Malageño who fell in love with the pretty charm of neighbouring Marbella – is hosting a fundraiser for the education of poor children and youngsters on Saturday night at the Starlite Festival just up the road…

Azulejos on a wall, Old Marbella.

Azulejos on a wall, Old Marbella.

Alameda Park

Alameda Park

We walk down through La Alameda park to the sea-front and onto the paseo maritimo, the belvedere than runs along the whole of the Marbellan coast all the way to Puerto Banus, kilometres of walking, running and cycling.  I stop by the yacht club and a small marina. Here, none of the vulgar and bunker-like floating gin palaces of Puerto Banus, but sail-boats, small motor boats, boats for pleasure and family and friendship, boats for forgetting worries and tacking into the wind, churros boats, quintessential Marbellíes.



Marbella is a bubble in crisis-hit Spain. Though it amply participated in the making of the crisis – enthusiastic and overstretched construction and a hopelessly corrupt elected body in the 2000s, many of whom ended up in jail – and though it undoubtedly took a hit, it does not seem to be suffering much of its consequences when compared with the rest of Andalusia, where half the people are unemployed, or even with the rest of Spain. It remains popular with foreigners and those Spaniards who can still afford holidays and it continues to attract new residents from all over Europe and beyond, a little world of its own, a treat of a city like a dish of churros, sweet and naughty, of no nutritional value but enjoyable and protected because everybody loves it.




lady and child by steps





16th-century fisherman's house, now a restaurant.

16th-century fisherman’s house, now a restaurant.


The silent piano

I wanted to write something fun and intriguing today. After all, having just started this blog, I would like to set an attractive, upbeat tone, a beguiling Mozart sonata rather than a mournful Chopin Waltz, exploring subjects that would caress and encourage my readers. But life has a way of interrupting our plans and imposing its own.

Did I say life? I meant death.

This morning we heard that Therese had died. A close relative called to let us know. The news was not unexpected. Therese had been ill for some time with an inoperable and incurable brain cancer, associated with a number of other serious ailments : it was a violent gallbladder infection that killed her. A close friend of the whole family for 20 years, since she had become the partner, latterly wife, of our lifelong friend Michel, Therese had won me over almost immediately with her attitude – a mix of optimism, rebellion and expansive kindness that hid a vulnerable core. She was 81. She was 21. Her body had altered, her mind had become wise, her heart had never aged.

Therese, Granada coast, 2011

Yet eventually, it gave up. Not only her physical heart, through death, but her emotional heart. Shortly after receiving her diagnosis, she renounced life and prepared to leave us.

– “I’m tired, my darling”, she told me, the last time we spoke. “I’m simply waiting to go.” Of all the people I’ve met Therese was one I’d least have imagined to be resigned, to go gently into that good night. People can surprise you at life’s edge, and she knew more about it than I did.

– “I love you, I said, I’ll miss you”. I surprised myself: these were words I’d thought but never expressed before. When she told me she was dying, they came tumbling out like a rush of emotional notes from a baby grand.

Therese had no children, but she had a piano. Had her parents been more supportive, had she believed in herself in her teens, she would have made a fine concert pianist. Until a few months before her death, she still entranced social evenings in her small flat in Geneva playing a Brahms dance, a Mozart sonata, a Fauré allegro, or a melancholy Chopin Waltz. The first time I heard her play, she had been in the next room. I didn’t know her well and thought she had put on a CD of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances for piano.

– “No, no, ma petite Sophie, that’s one of the things I do well myself. You see, I cannot cook. I’m no good at sports and really quite silly sometimes. But I can play the piano.” She had played the 1st Hungarian Dance as though she were giving a recital. I was her friend from that moment on.

What would her life have been if she’d known that when she was 20? Another Moura Lympany? A professor at the conservatory?

Instead, she became an international civil servant and worked a bureaucratic job at the WHO (World Health Organisation). She had a long-standing relationship with a man with whom she could have no children. Some years after his death, in her early 60s, she met Michel and they had been together since. Did she miss out, not having children?

– “I thought so once, but no longer. I’ve had a good life!” And so she had. She had travelled widely, she had spread love and beauty wherever she went, she had stood by her strong opinions on social justice, and she had met some of the great men and women of her age, who had honoured her.

She and I shared a love for literature, for music and for the underdog. Though she could have been my grandmother, though our belief systems were different (she was an avowed agnostic), I always felt her to be a kindred spirit, a spiritual sister.

This morning, we spoke to Michel on Skype. His normal upbeat teasing manner had given way to grieving bewilderment. He is lost without the companion of his old age. He spoke of her piano, which was behind him in the room where he sat, of the longing he had to hear her play again, of the sight and sound of her everywhere in the apartment. A silent piano is so sad. I caught her with my mind’s ear. I tried to conjure the lilting 1st Hungarian Dance, but heard only the last notes of a Chopin waltz.

Au revoir, Therese.

Therese, Alhambra, 2011

time machine

The heat that pushed us indoors during these dog days of the Alpine summer has placed me in front of the grandfather clock in the only cool room in the chalet, the dining-sitting room, for hours – working, socialising, keeping fresh. Every hour it strikes the hour twice, at the exact time and two minutes later – ‘in case we didn’t hear it the first time’ my mother says, and on the half-hour, once. It’s a clear chime, which carries throughout the chalet, even with the doors shut : there is no chance of not hearing it and so when we go to bed, we remove the lead weight that sets off the clock every half-hour. Then only the unrelenting pendulum swings loudly in the night.


It’s long since I examined this symbol both of time fleeing and permanence. Its casing is rough, rustic, hewn together some 150 years ago from fir wood by a peasant in the mountains of Maurienne in Savoy. Over time it has been polished with beeswax until its patina darkened its colour to a deep honey.

The mechanism comes from the Jura mountains, watch country to this day, where clockmakers used to work in small workshops and sent clock and watch mechanisms throughout Europe. The tin-glazed clock face is surrounded by a detailed brass bas relief depicting a mountain huntsman brandishing a rifle, a dog at his side, on a stylised background of oak leaves, acorns and ivy.


I’m wondering about the three men who made this clock. The clockmaker, unusually, did not mark his name or area on the clock face. The bas-relief artist must have worked with the clockmaker, perhaps in the same workshop or close by, to order. He and the peasant-carpenter remain as anonymous as the clockmaker (how do I know he was not a trained carpenter? Because he made an uneven, rough casing out of what looks like the ends of wood used for making other, larger furniture.) The peasant who bought the mechanism with this decorated clock face was not poor : he could afford a good quality movement that still works 150 years later and tells the right time to the minute. But he was not rich: he had to build his own case, out of cheap fir wood. He made it to last, using thick square wood pegs to hold together the strong boards.


He invested in two pieces of glass: a large necessary one in front of the clock face, and a smaller one he must have chosen for his own pleasure, revealing the brass pendulum, battered by time.


Was he a grandfather, assembling his clock during his well-deserved retirement from back-breaking high altitude Alpine farming and animal husbandry? Or perhaps a mountain guide who whiled away his winter evenings in a makeshift workshop in the decades before winter sports took over the Maurienne and turned his descendants into skiing instructors and ski patrollers in the resorts above Albertville. Was he a young man building a clock for his wife-to-be, to impress her parents and prove his resilience and time-worthiness?

His way of life has disappeared from the Alps. His land was sold to make ski slopes and build chalets for tourists. His great-great-grandchildren live in flats and few of them would know how to make a grandfather clock case. His family sold his clock, perhaps to buy some newly necessary household item or simply because it was old and out of fashion. In the 1960s, Alpine antique dealers went from farm to farm, buying clocks, chests, beds and tables, often for next to nothing from families who didn’t realise their value and timeless beauty.

There is still a handful of bas-relief artists and traditional clockmakers in the Jura, but most have closed their workshops, replaced by high-tech workers or cheaper mass-producing factory workers, many of them in Asia. They too have been overtaken by relentless time.

We collect these ancient rustic pieces to give ourselves a window onto a past that was never ours. The grandfather clock is a time machine to a lost world, a magical bridge to a traditional clockmaker, a brass-working artist in the valleys of the Jura and a mountain peasant-carpenter whose life left no other trace of its passage and culture. Time was slower when that clock was made. It has accelerated beyond the imaginings of its makers, faster than the skiers who whizz down those mountains in winter. Yet the clock is still there and tells the time in the way it always did. It has just struck six: the same six chimes the farmer heard in his rugged wood and stone house 150 years ago. Time has passed. Time has stood still.