29 February 2012

Magic Boots

On this Leap Day, I wish to offer you some boots.  Not just any old boots, but ones with lift, oomph and a surprising spring in their step. 

I once owned such a pair. 

It was a time when my fitness was, shall we say, less than ideal.  It was a pain to walk up hills, or let’s face it, walk pretty much anywhere.  (You can guess from the less than balletic proportions of the legs in this photo that any device to assist forward propulsion will have been a boon.)

And then I bought my magic boots.

A pair that were very cheaply priced and bog-standard basic, whenever they were on my feet, they surged power through my legs.  They pushed, they reassured, they encouraged me over new terrain, away from the straight and narrow, and even up inclines.   On an annual visit to the Alpujarras in Spain, they enticed me to stand on ancient stone threshing floors, to wander in almond groves, to walk through soft green grasses of varying hues, to climb and lie in gnarled olive trees. 

Those boots were the business.

One day I went to a tiny hamlet along the Guadalfeo River.  By no means a wide river (a creek in North American terms) it was nonetheless February and the water was running swiftly.  I spotted a patch in the sun on the other side and wished to cross over.  So as not to get my special boots wet, I took them off, laced them together with the socks stuffed inside, and threw them across. 

It was no distance at all. 

And yet, I did one of those ridiculous girly throws, when the trajectory of the arm flails skyward, instead of retaining any idea of the perpendicular. 

And so my boots formed a looping arc in the air and plopped down, right into the centre of the river whose currents went to work.   Though the water was only about ankle or calf deep, the boots did not sink, but floated off downstream.

I tried to race after them, but was impeded by the numerous pebbles and stones of the riverbed.  And the boots – the bow of their joined laces still visible - never stopped, never snagged themselves on any rocks, but carried merrily on, borne away by the glinting river.

And suddenly, ping, a deep understanding in every cell of my body came like a voice from the depths: It’s not about the boots!   The magic isn’t in the boots! 

I needed a river to teach me that I had become fixated on a quality that was not exclusive to my boots but, in fact, was all around - if I simply chose to open my eyes and see.

And so, for Leap Day, I wish you, too, a pair of magic boots that you can use. 

Then lose.

24 February 2012

The Sleeping Place

I am very drawn to graveyards.

Odd, perhaps, to want to mooch around in such spots when, in the end, there will be plenty of opportunity.

This is not to make light of the fact that cemeteries are places that can evoke immense sorrow.  Walking amongst headstones is tantamount to reading a history of cruel loss – the scythe of epidemic through families, children taken long before their time, teenagers who gambled and lost.

But they can also document the triumphs of longevity, and the pull of love between spouses who die within a year of each other.  They can give a humorous nod to the fallibility of stone engravers who neglect to forward-plan and add a tiny hasty “a” to the word “dughter” or scrunch lettering as they come too suddenly to the end of a line.

As a child I first wandered through churchyards with my mother in Northern Ireland, pulling brambles away from old stones in order to locate the resting place of ancestors.  It was not morbid, but brought a deep sense of belonging and of my own history.  In recent years, my mother has had the privilege of leading new-found Australian or American cousins to an abbey graveyard near where she lives and stand, linked through the potency of bloodline, in front of the stone bearing the name of a mutual five or six-times great grandfather.

Foreign cemeteries contain their own quirky hints about how the dead are mourned, or celebrated – the stacking of the recently departed in what look like wall lockers above the ground in places such as Spain, the cedar fronds placed in a bowl in front of graves in the Black Forest in Germany and used to sprinkle each plot three times with holy water,  the addition of photographs in countries such as France (leading, no doubt, to debate about which exact picture to use), the picnics enjoyed in graveyards by Mexicans and Japanese, the asymmetric headstones in Georgia and the structures built around them – sometimes even with a TV set so that relatives can spend longer time at the side of their loved one.

Yet the most moving cemetery I have ever visited was a war cemetery in Northern France.  Unlike in the Commonwealth war cemeteries with their immaculately kept flowered borders and white stones, here were no fine words about how this parcel of land had been donated in thankfulness by the French nation.  Stretching up a slight incline towards the horizon were dark metal crosses.  Eleven thousand of them.  Each cross marked the burial site of at least four soldiers.  Over forty-four thousand men lay in the ground. 

The cemetery in question was the German war cemetery at Neuville-Saint-Vaast.  And the most eye-watering irony of all was that scattered in amongst the dark crosses were one hundred and twenty-nine headstones bearing the star of David.  For during the 1914 - 18 War, Jewish soldiers, too, fought and died for the Fatherland.

In the English language, cemetery or graveyard as words both seem too harsh to provide much solace.  Other languages appear more palliative, such as German where Friedhof  translates as peace yard.  Spanish, similar to us, has cementerio, yet also uses camposanto, or holy field.  And yet within the English word cemetery is hidden a much gentler derivation, from the Greek koimētērion –  literally meaning sleeping place.

Every time I wander such a sleeping place, my feet still firmly on the surface of the earth, it appears to offer up profound instruction.  Live now, it seems to say.  Live as though your very soul depended on it.

15 February 2012

Them Thar Hills

If this blog were a sign on a doorknob, it would say something like:


because, yes, I have packed up my belongings, wrapped them in a large white handkerchief on the end of a stick, and am now off down the road, the very long road, to more southern climes. 

This is my annual trek to a wonderful village in the mountains of southern Spain where I shall be staying for a week in the home of a gifted artist friend.  In that magical space I shall be working on my novel, banishing cobwebs and seeking new inspiration.

What I love about mountains is that they:
  • clear the head
  • pose an eternal challenge
  • provide uncontested grandeur
  • invite ever-changing plays of light
  • point to the heavens
  • yet are a solid anchor  
  • need to be approached with respect
  • remind me of my own insignificance

I may also have the chance to sit and contemplate this river you can see below, listen to its song, enjoy its haste, wonder at its purpose.  This very river once stole a pair of prized walking boots of mine but that, as they say, is another story...

The region I am visiting is the Alpujarras, made famous by the writer Chris Stewart in his book Driving Over Lemons

It is also home to the extremely perceptive writer and artist Meg Robinson.

8 February 2012

Quiz: What Kind of Snow Person Are You?

Which of the following three statements (the first lines of novels that may never be written) most accurately sums up your own attitude towards snow? 

  1. Snow fell overnight, stitching up the town, zipping it shut like a hand over a mouth.  Snow wiped the slate clean, smoothed over all mistakes.   

  1. Snow deposited an impossible burden on the buckling branches of the ailing beech tree, and brought the world to a juddering stop.  It spread relentlessly down the street and into the churchyard,  where only the gravestones had the nerve to poke through.

  1. The snow was a yielding bed – soft and tickly like the feathers that had blown into the breeze the day she shook out the heirloom eiderdown.

You’ll find a psychological interpretation for your choice at the bottom of this blog.

Having grown up in Ottawa, Canada, where winters didn’t even bother to bare their teeth before grabbing you savagely by the short and curlies, my first years in England were marked by confusion.  Was this October?  Was this April?  Maybe it was February.  Who knew. 

Since then, I have grown to celebrate the more subtle gradations between the seasons here in the southeast and tolerate the absence of anything that could call itself winter.  And in these recent days, as snow has swept across Europe and temperatures have plunged, I’m pleased to say that we too experienced a dusting of the white stuff last weekend.  OK, it may have only lasted 24 hours, but it was a start.

In my childhood one time, when freezing rain fell on top of a thick layer of snow and turned the outdoors into a giant rink, I skated into the woods behind my house – twirling through and around the trees during a spell-binding afternoon.  That memory became the inspiration for the following poem, first published in Ambit magazine.



Overnight the snow has hardened to ice,
has crusted the field where yesterday
we lay making the shapes of angels.

I leave cornflakes untouched, search the attic
for old skates whose toes are stuffed
with crinkled headlines from ancient papers,

glide across the backyard
past the derelict barn, amongst trees
that have been stripped of all logical thought,

over the highway and into a whiteout
of slippages and crossed lines,
teepees, tents and medieval fairs.

My cheeks are pocked with frostbite.
I know the chill diplomacy of kings.
I beg for morsels of suckling pig

though something wiry and untamed
has beaten me to the feast,
see: it has devoured both flanks.

Beneath my blades the ground keeps its counsel,
too withdrawn for resolutions, too frozen for burials.
I will skate

until my gut feels a kick of green shoots,
until the melt exposes winter debris
to new air.

© Katie Griffiths

Check out Ambit magazine here: http://www.ambitmagazine.co.uk/
And take a look at the Poetry Library site.  It has info on magazines (online and print), poem competitions and events. http://www.poetrylibrary.org.uk/

What Kind of Snow Person Are You?

If you chose A:
You have a rumbling guilt complex that is manifesting itself in the weather.  Precipitation holds no answers.   Seek therapy.

If you chose B: 
There is clearly no fun in your life.  Go on!  Get out there!  Build an igloo!  Move in!

If you chose C: 
You are an incorrigible romantic, and I think we should meet up.  I’ll make the hot chocolate.

2 February 2012

The Chuniri Challenge

In an enchanting village high in the Caucasus Mountains last summer, I watched closely as the singer and musician Ana Chamgeliani played a strange instrument.  Looking a bit like a banjo, a bit like a lute but held upright like a cello, this was her chuniri.  Its three strings were bowed simultaneously, producing a warm, rustic sound – at times creating harmonics on the notes.  I was instantly captivated.

I had travelled as part of a group to the republic of Georgia to learn traditional songs in the Svaneti region.  Ana was part of the household in which I was billetted.  Responsible along with her sisters for breakfasts and dinners, teaching songs and looking after the guests, she had scant time to devote to individual tuition.

But, for half an hour on the second last day of our visit, Ana patiently taught me the accompaniment to one of the songs we had learned.  It was deceptively simple.  Simple for her.  Deceptive for me.  Having played violin in my childhood (never fully mastered, but past the strangled rooster phase) I thought the chuniri would be, at least, the peasy bit of easy. 


First of all, you’re not meant to press the strings down hard against the neck of the instrument, but rest your fingers on top of them instead.  Then, sometimes, you need to put your finger in between strings to sound two of them simultaneously.  Thirdly, to bow it using the kind of chopping and sawing movement that on a violin would make an audience homicidal is precisely what is required on the chuniri. 

In Ana’s hands the music from the intricately carved instrument was beautiful and earthy, like home-spun wool.  Playing it involved a wonderful physicality – with the round drum-like part placed around her knees.  I could instantly understand why the chuniri, national instrument of the Svaneti region, has been ascribed magical powers for its ability to draw forth immense sadness in songs of loss, or tenderness in lullabies, or joy when used to support three-part sung harmony. 

Upstairs in my bedroom in the wooden village house, alone with Ana’s chuniri, I began to make a modicum of progress, with recognisable notes emerging at roughly the right pitch.  Just as well, as several days before I had indicated an interest in buying one to take home with me. 

My chuniri was being made in a neighbouring village and would not be ready until our minibus passed through on its homeward-bound journey towards Zugdidi.  As soon as the blue plastic bag with my instrument inside was loaded on the bus, I felt unease.  It looked smaller than I had expected.  Indeed, when we arrived in Tbilisi after a sweaty overnighter on the train from Zugdidi, a proper examination confirmed the chuniri was about three-quarters of the size of Ana’s. 

As far as I know, there is no Brussels-stipulated size for a Georgian chuniri.  My instrument may well be within the bounds of normality.  Yet if I place its body around my knees (why does this remind me of wrestling with a miniskirt) the neck scarcely reaches my shoulder.  If I set it on my lap, the neck is in a better position, but I lose that wonderful feeling of my knees connecting with the instrument.  

“Never mind,” friends have said brightly, glossing over my general ineptitude.  “If you were beginning any instrument, they’d start you off on a smaller one.”

So, this is the excuse for not having made greater strides on what is otherwise a beguiling instrument.  I’m stuck in the musical equivalent of trainer pants.

You can see Ana playing the chuniri here, and singing a lovely song called Mirangula with her sisters:

This is a programme about how chuniris are made.  It’s in Georgian but, fear not, the visuals are good!  (And the guy at the beginning looks like he’s playing quite a small chuniri…)

You can see a range of Georgian traditional instruments being used in a more modern context here: