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The Power of Place

I have been buried in research for my book over the past few days and it has highlighted, for me, the impact of place on people’s thoughts and emotions. Some places leave an indelible mark on your psyche, no matter how distant the experience. I have been researching the histories of different people and places for various chapters and it has triggered many memories and experiences of the people and places that have had an impact on me and has changed the way I think and the way I view life.

I want to share some of these places with you and to talk about the impact and the memories they hold:

Yad Vashem

Yad Vashem is Israel’s official memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. I visited while I was in Jerusalem and the power of the city as a place is indefinable. There was a palpable tension in the air as I passed guards on the ascent to Temple Mount, and as I stood looking at the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the aqua tiles of the Dome of the Rock, with its golden dome and imposing stature. The view from the Mount of Olives was breath-taking and the churches passed en route to the top were full of symbolism and a deep sense of history.

But it was the museum at Yad Vashem which left the strongest imprint on my memory of the place. The atrocities of the holocaust are heightened by the collective photographs, paintings and sculptures; by the narrow walls funneling you through into the various rooms of exhibits. I have visited Anne Frank’s house (now the Anne Frank Museum) in Amsterdam and, although people say there is more power in the story of one person, I found the impact of the exhibits collectively much more choking. The final circular room, The Hall of Names, forces you to look up to the cone shaped ceiling displaying 600 photographs and fragments of pages of testimony commemorating the victims.

Yad Vashem is not a place you will ever forget. Memories of the museum pervade my thoughts from time to time along with memories of my Grandfather. Our family believe that he was Jewish, although it was never talked about and my Grandmother dismissed the idea. They met before the war and all that we know is that his family fled from Eastern Europe. A tall, slim, dark haired man, he was highly intelligent and intensely private. His quiet presence will never be forgotten. My memories of him teaching me to play Moonlight Sonata on the piano before I could read music are coupled with memories of him pulling funny faces at breakfast, somewhere out of my Grandmother’s line of vision. He was an accomplished organ player and a mesmerising pianist. When my mind wanders and fixes itself on the images I remember from Yad Vashem, it takes me back to my Grandfather and I wonder if I can trace his family tree back to Jewish, I wonder if he ever had relatives who did not survive.

Yad Vashem

Sistine Chapel

Rome is a frenetic city, full of tourists clamouring to reach the sites; a place with another unique history, a place tracing its roots back to the Roman Empire, it is one of the oldest cities in Europe. In amongst the traffic and bustle of people lies the Vatican, and on a rainy day several summers ago I queued in a long line of umbrellas for the fortuitous last Sunday of the month. I say fortuitous, as these Sundays offer free entry into the museums and the Sistine Chapel. I remember the relatively plain walls circling the museum complex around which several hundred people waited, sharing coffee and swapping stories of where they had come from.

Upon finally reaching the point of entry, we all walked slowly through the grand and elaborate complex containing the quiet halls leading in to the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo’s detailed frescoes of The Last Judgement and the Garden of Eden are undoubtedly a feat of immense skill and talent. The statistic of well over 5,000 square feet of panels painted in a mere three years is a dizzying thought. As we all looked up and around the side walls, the intensity of the blues and the tone and shading of the skin on the subjects made the images look three dimensional, giant, imposing.

What struck me was the vastness and the power of the images, the care and attention to detail of each and every section of the frescoes. I had visited the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and admired the paintings and sculptures collected by the Medici family, and drawings by Da Vinci; I had seen Michelangelo’s  famed Statue of David, but nothing had prepared me for the awe inspiring sense of beauty and greatness of the walls of the chapel.

Memories of the Sistine Chapel reminds me of the power of human endeavour, and of the capacity of art to bring beauty to a world where we are bombarded with advertising images and all that is temporal.

sistine chapel

Khayelitsha

The Khayelitsha Township sits on the Western Cape of South Africa. It is one of the world’s largest and fastest growing townships and is a reminder of some of the racial segregation and discrimination within South Africa and of it’s troubled history of Apartheid. Established in 1985, large numbers of black South Africans were relocated to the Khayelitsha Township.

What struck me as I met some of the families was not only the physical closeness of the homes, but the extended families and their  warmth towards each other. I remember images of grandmothers carrying babies and young children playing in large groups, making toys out of old tyres and various materials. I remember watching men gathering in large groups and of people, unnervingly, visiting the local witch doctor with his feathers and potions suspended from the roof of a tin hut.  Despite the poverty and the clear sense of displacement, there was a cohesion that I think many people search for and struggle to find in their own societies. I saw similar relationships and communities amongst the Badjao people in the Philippines and the Nubian communities along the River Nile in Egypt.

khayelitsha

Valley of the Kings

How is it that we can build some pretty unattractive and unimaginative buildings with the most sophisticated modern day machinery, when the Ancient Egyptians managed to build elaborate tombs and pyramids, sphinxes and sarcophagi? I often wonder how, with the increase in technology, our architecture is rarely a match for buildings such as the temple of Rameses II, the Taj Mahal, the temples of Angkor Wat, the Great Wall of China, the sandstone rock cut monuments of Petra. How did we end up propelling technology forwards at such a rapid pace, yet, conversely,  diminishing a passion for beauty, detail and grandeur?

Of all the sites in Egypt – the pyramids, the collections in the Cairo Museum, the temples of Luxor and beyond, Abu Simbel – the Valley of the Kings is perhaps the most impressive for its intricate paintings, and for the sheer ability of the Ancient Egyptians to tunnel deep into the rock structure and carve out the most elaborate tombs. The mystery surrounding the embalming and the burial rituals of this  ancient civilisation has captured people’s interest for centuries. I took a hot air balloon at dawn over the Valley of the Kings and it is possibly one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Although you cannot see the interior of the tombs from the air, the mist over the Nile, scenes of camels grazing along the banks and farmers pulling donkeys and carts, create a place that has remained relatively unchanged over the years since the tombs were built. The Ancient Egyptians were able to irrigate the land, growing similar crops to those seen today, and agriculture is still a primary source of income.

The silence of a cloudless sky and the view of the silver light on the river at sunrise is a picture that I have tucked away in my memory. Where many places change and evolve over time, the views along the Nile are very similar to the views of 2,000 years ago. Although tourism has changed the coastal towns, and brought with it an alternative source of revenue, the beauty of the Nile and the mystery of an ancient civilisation is what makes the country, in part, so captivating.

valley of the kings

 The power of a sense of place is an integral part of every story, the history and the atmosphere, the people and events. They all tie in to the actions and behaviour, affecting the emotions and thoughts of the people inhabiting the space. This, in any writing, can have an impact and intensity that deepens the reader’s experience.

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Interview with Strange Alliances

This is just a quick post to let you know that my interview with Elaine Aldred is over at her blog, Strange Alliances: F.C. Malby. Literally Engaged With Her Writing. We discuss my teaching experience in the Czech Republic just after the fall of communism, and various aspects of writing and publishing.

Many thanks to Elaine for taking the time to interview me. She is a wonderful support to writers and her backlist of author interviews is well worth the read. Do leave comments and feel free to ask any questions.

 


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A Library Snapshot

I have been reading a mixture of books recently and many of them are too good not to share, so I’d like to dip into each one and give you a glimpse of what makes the books stand out in a crowded bookshelf. I haven’t finished all of them so these are just outlines and glimpses.

101 days            orkney       amity and sorrow    first-light-charles-baxter-paperback-cover-art     irish short story

A Hundred and One Days by Åsne Seierstad

Author Åsne Seierstad is a freelance journalist and who writes about everyday life in war zones. From her first hand experiences, she has written about Kabul, Baghdad and Grozny. I particularly enjoyed The Bookseller of Kabul, so I have finally picked up this gem, A Hundred and One Days, set in Baghdad during the US invasion of Iraq. I enjoy non-fiction and stories set in conflict areas so her books appeal to me. Seierstad focuses on the lives of Iraqi citizens, providing an insight into their days lived under the constant threat of attack, first from the Iraqi government and later from American bombs. She also describes in vivid detail the frustration felt by journalists in their attempts to sort truth from propadanda. The book looks at the ‘before,’ ‘during,’ and ‘after,’ of the war without casting moral judgement on the situation, and looks at everyday lives with a sharp understanding of human nature, a trait in her writing which I have enjoyed in her other books.

Orkney by Amy Sackville

Amy Sackville is a creative writing teacher at Kent University, and this is her second novel, set on a remote island in Orkney. It is a poetic and lyrical story of an unusual couple: a 61 year old literature professor and his pupil who is never actually named. The  book spans their fortnight honeymoon in this barren landscape and, as she spends an obsessive amount of time by the sea, he realises how little he knows her. We don’t know why his wife is so obsessed by the sea, but it has something to do with her father, who disappeared when she was young. The language of the book is beautiful and intriguing, and I couldn’t put it down.

Amity and Sorrow by Peggy Riley

Riley is a writer and a playwright. There is so much to say about her but I’ll save it for my upcoming author interview next week. Released on March 28, this book is shocking and gripping story of a mother who rescues her daughters from a cult, their father and a fire,  driving for days without sleep until they crash their car in rural Oklahoma. The girls, Amity and Sorrow, can’t imagine what the world holds outside their father’s polygamous compound. Rescue comes in the unlikely form of Bradley, a farmer grieving the loss of his wife. This is an unforgettable story which I was fortunate enough to receive as an advanced reader copy. I would recommend picking it up when it is released in the next few weeks. It has already had some wonderful reviews.

First Light by Charles Baxter

I discovered this out of print gem and managed to find a second hand copy. Charles Baxter’s short stories have appeared in the Best American Short Stories and in two of his own collections. This novel, his first, was supported by a Guggenheim Foundation grant. He takes us backwards through the lives of Hugh and Dorsey Welch who are brother and sister. We meet them as adults, while Hugh is a Buick salesman and Dorsey is an astrophysicist, and discover their dark and difficult pasts. The author traces their paths back to the day of Dorsey’s birth with an unusual subtlety. His opening paragraph includes this vivid description: ‘Hugh keeps both hands near the top of the steering wheel the way cautious men often do, and he does not turn to argue with her, not at first.’

The Grant Book of the Irish Short Story

I am reading both the Irish Short Story collection and the Best American Short Stories, but I wanted to focus on this collection in particular, edited by Anne Enright. Ireland has produced some of the world’s most celebrated short story writers and this, a collection of the best works of contemporary Irish short fiction writers, includes works by  Roddy Doyle, William Trevor, Colm Toibin and Kevin Barry. It  begins and ends with a road accident. The first, which proves fortuitous, involves an out-of-work labourer and a carload of nuns; the second – which is fatal – occurs when a mechanic decides to earn a few extra euros ferrying tourists to a shrine where a statue of Mary is said to weep. Between these two tales we meet a mother who finds her son suspected of abuse and we glimpse the consequences of Irish abortion law. The subjects are heavy and, sometimes dark, but the writing is tight and distinctive. My favourite story so far is John Banville’s Summer Voices. His book, The Sea, won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 and his short story is carried off with the same elegance of style with phrases such as these: ‘The radiance of the summer afternoon wove shadows about him.’ The story follows a young boy and girl who discover a body in amongst an almost eerie description of the landscape.