Saturday, April 10, 2021

Quarantine and Funeral Blues for Philip


Sitting here alone in my tenth - and last day - of quarantine. Various representatives of the UK Gov. have been keeping me from feeling lonely by phoning me every day, asking me what I am up to, and making sure I am not doing something illegal. I did not realize I was not allowed to go for a walk until Day 2, when I was taking my normal hour stroll around the neighbourhood. 'Hello' said the government person on my telephone. 'Where are you? I replied that I was out for my walk and was told I had to go straight home or I would be fined. 

So here I am. I have done my two required expensive self-administered Covid-19 tests and sent them off. The first came back with 'Unclear' as a result, telling me that I might have to quarantine for another ten days. I told one of my government friends who called that there was no way I would do that. They could go right ahead and arrest me. My government friend was sympathetic but firm.  Hopefully tomorrow the second test result will come back negative- I have been vaccinated!

And meanwhile the lovely Prince Philip has left us. I always had a massive crush on him...The poor Queen- what must she be feeling now- 


 I remember what it felt like in the days after my Keita had died.  There is that outraged feeling that everything is going on as normal in the world. How dare the grass need to be cut, how dare the tube trains keep running? how dare people go shopping and prepare meals and even laugh as if nothing had happened? And the shocked realization that I even laughed myself, and was able to talk for about two minutes before remembering once again the awful truth that HE is gone and will NEVER come back.

That is why that Auden poem is so wonderful- the Funeral Blues- because it understands that  outrage of ordinary things daring to affront by carrying on as normal- and also because it understands that beautiful things, like stars, are irrelevant- the sun and the stars keep on shining but it is for all the others, it is no longer for me.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, 
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone, 
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum 
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come. 
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead 
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead, 
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves, 
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves. 
He was my North, my South, my East and West, 
My working week and my Sunday rest, 
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song; 
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong. 
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one; 
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun; 
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood; 
For nothing now can ever come to any good. 
W H Auden

Friday, April 2, 2021

Where to even begin...

I arrived back in London on Wednesday after two intense weeks in Mali. This time Father Columba Stewart, my boss, joined me, escaping his Minnesota monastery for the first time in a year and a half.


Our Italian colleague Maria Luisa also joined us and we ventured north together  for our three day visit to Djenne, driven in an airconditioned 4x4 this time.  We stopped at the splendid San Mosque on the way north:

Visits to some of my favourite villages around Djenne followed – we looked at family manuscript collections in the glorious little mud village Gomitogo (first two pictures above) where the best calligraphers are found:


 we visited  Imam Yelpha in Djenne of course, who spoke about the security situation which is calm around Djenne as it has been for some years now- not in a small measure due to his own quiet and discreet mediation between the different factions- jihadists and Donso hunters who are strong around Djenne.                                                                 


‘My ‘ calligraphers had finished the ‘Dalai al Kayrat’ (Prayers upon the Prophet) which I commissioned a year ago- it is beautiful and  I took a lot of pictures which will be used as promotional material for a little trial venture- will we be able to get commissions for more? I am hoping it is the beginning of a calligraphy studio in Djenne...? This copy was now bought by Columba for HMML- it will perhaps be  displayed in the Museum in Minnesota.


Two of the Timbuktu workers had braved the road south and came down to see us bearing the last hard drives from our Timbuktu Project which is now officially closed. The last evening we all had a meal at the Campement Hotel, and guess who prepared our meal? My old chef Papa of course, and he cooked us Boeuf Keita again...


In two days the cataract team lead by Dr. Faira Keita will once more arrive in Djenne for their yearly week of operations on the village population- as always sponsored by the generosity of Pelle and Nanni – my cousin and his wife. The dates did not quite coincide, so this year I could not be there for the opening ceremony- always dedicated to my Keita who worked for many years at the Djenne hospital. A minutes silence is held for him. This year it was the 5th anniversary of his death.

I visited the family of course- in Bamako and Mai in Segou. Moussa, Keita’s eldest son came with me to the cemetary where I gave him Keita’s bracelet which I have worn since he died. It was always destined for him, and when I saw him crying at the grave I took off the bracelet and gave it to him.


And then the customary hikes around the hills of Bamako with Karen with whom I stayed the last few days. A lovely trip...


Arriving in London a labyrinthine obstacle course at Heathrow with hour long queues and umpteen papers and online forms that had to be filled in- interviews by officials and extreme patience required. Travelling now is not for the faint hearted... finally got through and have been called at home by someone from gov.Uk checking up on me already. Have to stay 10 days in self isolation. Nevermind. It was worth it!


Friday, March 5, 2021

The first and the last

 It has been a long time...

It is because I, like so many others, feel there is not much to talk about in this monotonous lock-down world we have inhabited for so long now...

but of course there is plenty stirring, and some of it may be the closing of one chapter and the opening of another, but who knows? My Mali adventure  is still not quite at its end: I am leaving in just over a week for Bamako, and will once more be winding my dusty way up to Djenne- this time in the company of my boss Father Columba the Benedictine from Minnesota, with whom I have lived through many adventures in the past- let's hope this trip will be more peaceful than our first trip to Timbuktu together in August 2017- see beginning of this blog.

This time we are only going to Djenne- the work in Timbuktu is being wrapped up finally, since we have now digitized all the manuscripts in the three great libraries there.  But the work in Djenne continues- at least for now! 

The picture above is taken on the day Keita and I first visited the land which were to become Hotel Djenne Djenno in April 2006. The picture below is my  last breakfast  on the day I closed the hotel in 2017. On the 26th of March it will be five years since Keita left us- I will be in Bamako then. His last days  still feel as fresh in my memory as if they were yesterday. My life since then has seemed like a waiting room, where I have passed some pleasant time, but waited for what is to develop next. And now, maybe there is another chapter- and it may be just around the corner- it has to do with a plan for another little guesthouse, or a pensione rather, and it might be in Italy- the plans which were vague are shaping up a little more firmly, and if all goes well I will travel back to London via Italy at Easter time where I will return to Siena... but more about that later if it works... meanwhile the Italian is coming on apace- doing an online intensive Italian course.

More from Mali... then from Italy if they will let me in..!Ciao!


Friday, January 1, 2021

Vienna and the Bani Waltz

 Like most New Years Days of my life when I have been in proximity to a TV, I watched the New Year's concert from the Vienna Philharmonics,  conducted this year once more by Riccardo Muti. 

It was an eerie affair this time, because the glorious Musikverein concert hall, normally filled with the world's great and good- or at least the richest-was empty. But at the same time there was ZOOM participation from a multitude of nations: a more democratic crowd, representing  the 50 million or so spectators world wide. Riccardo Muti ended the concert with some well-chosen words to the world's leaders about the healing power of music and culture.

This event is of course  a  vortex of unashamedly old fashioned Europe:  those glorious Viennese waltzes played normally  to all those well-healed white people- the cameras always having trouble seeking out someone to represent all the other races in our diverse world. But nevertheless the message is always a joyful one which rings out to all the world, and no New Year's Day would be complete without it.

The penultimate offering of the orchestra is always an der schonen blauen Donau: the Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauss. This particular famous Waltz has particular significance for me because it reminds me of Mali- yes, strangely, it brings a very specific memory of the  New Year 2006 when my friends and I was on that holiday which came to change my life. The setting was the Bani river:

 We  had hired two pirogues and their pirogiers to paddle us between Sanouna by Djenne and Mopti. The journey took three days and two nights, and included New Year's Eve, when we made a fire on the shore after we had pitched our tents. We then sat down to try and entertain ourselves until twelve. That is quite a long time, since the sun sets about six thirty. So we decided that our midnight would arrive an hour earlier...We were an international bunch: Andrew from the UK, Pia and Anna from Sweden and Andreas from Austria. We all now performed whatever we could remember of the songs and poems of our respective languages, we played games etc. At our designated 'midnight', a large casserole was placed on my head, and twelve gongs rang out as the casserole was banged with a large wooden soup ladle. Once I had recovered from this, Andreas started singing An der schonen  blauen Donau, as he bowed before me in an old fashioned European way and we began to waltz on the sandy shore of the Bani, the others soon joining us, all humming away  with the full moon above us- even the pirogiers joined in as we taught them to waltz!

Therefore that particular waltz, at the beginning of a New Year, brings happy memories of the beginning of a very different year, which brought with it the beginning of my new Malian existence. I am hoping this year might bring something lovely too...?

A Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Illegal Christmas

We have just spent an illegal Christmas here in my Ladbroke Grove Flat- Andrew and Pia who were first with me for that legendary trip to Mali at  Christmas and New Year 2005-6, and Ralf. our German friend. 
It was illegal in so far as we all live alone, so therefore, under the emergency laws now in force we were all only strictly allowed to see one more person, and that was supposed to be outside! So that was of course no good...
There was a way of breaking the law which  let us off the hook at the same time as remaining safe in the knowledge that we were not spreading the disease...

 I had found a pharmacy in Portobello Road that made 20 minute  while-u-wait-Covid tests. Before my guests arrived, they had to go and get themselves tested... then come straight to Ladbroke Grove.  

Fortunately we were all Negative, so we could carry on and celebrate Christmas together. Christmas Eve was a Swedish affair, below with the Swedish Pia- there was herring of course, and Janssons Frestelse, and Julskinka and Glogg and Schnapps and smoked Elk sausage  and Ris a la Malta...  other nations had culinary representations in the form of Champagne and Panettoni of course...
And it went on to Christmas Day when Britain was finally represented in the form of a traditional Turkey dinner with all the trimmings including Pigs in Blankets, Cranberry sauce and Brussel Sprouts with chestnuts etc. and a marvellous Christmas Pud from the Garrick Club! 

Andrew below is wearing his mask for a moment as a means of identifying the year for future reference... there was the Queen's speech- lovely I thought- then prezzies for every one- before we were supposed to play those obligatory games- but the Charades were dropped by the way-side this year, as instead we all sank happily into watching a great double bill of Graham Greene stories- both famous classics: first Brighton Rock (the 1948 version of course), then the Third Man. 


It was interesting to see these two in succession, because they both feature two great Greene heroines who love their villainous men with a sort of unconditional, religious fervour. In the case of the angelic Rose, she is able to remain with  the merciful delusion  that Pinkie loved her; while Anna, on the contrary, knows fully the depth of Harry Lime's crimes, she even understands that he didn't love her. It doesn't matter to her. Her rejection of Martins when she walks past him without acknowledgment in the final scene is sublime...

After all a lovely Christmas in these strange times!

Monday, December 7, 2020

Picnics galore

has been the survival mechanism in this bizarre year. And yesterday was no exception. Some months  after we would normally have abandoned the park benches and grassy slopes for the comfort of a roaring fire in a lovely country pub, we are still gathering in the increasingly fresh air...


And here we are, having our picnic,  in Chalfont St. Giles where the pub to the left behind us no doubt would have been able to offer us  that roaring fire, but  was not able to let us in of course.  Amersham, the last outpost of the Metropolitan line, was the  beginning of our 9mile (15 k) circular walk, which included visiting (the outside of)  Milton's house where he is said to have finished Paradise Lost.

It was our book club outing. This book club is a very elastic and tenacious affair, able to mould itself around whatever circumstances is thrown at it. For two and a half years we were 'the Dantistas', who nearly managed to get through the Divine Comedy at my flat on Wednesdays, but when only half of Paradiso remained we were stopped in our tracks by this pandemic. Something lighter was needed, and we read Love in the Time of Cholera while our meetings became either ZOOM or mutated into socially distanced picnics in the summer months. 

And then our reading material became even shorter- now we read a short story a week, working through a series of the genre's greats: Flannery O'Connor, Katherine Mansfield, Raymond Carver etc. And sometimes we even read one we have penned ourselves! But, we will return to Dante once day...

 We ran into some very friendly horses, in a muddy field and I reflected how very fat they are in comparison to horses in Mali!


And that brings me back to that dear subject again: I will be leaving for Mali and Djenne at the end of January, inchallah, to see 'my' people in the library in particular. The project is still running and I speak to them every Saturday morning on WhatsApp.  Until then I spend most of my days trying to put the Djenne memoir into shape...on the second draft now. 

Friday, November 13, 2020

The Queen's Gambit

 Lockdown again, but there are some consolations, thankfully. The new instalment of The Crown is beginning on Sunday- hurray! and of course everyone is going crazy for the excellent Netflix series 'The Queens Gambit'. All those people who never wanted to play chess with me are now taking lessons online...that is of course great news. I have played all my life. It is the game of the Gods!

When  my friend Neville came to visit me at  Hotel Djenne Djenno in 2008 he brought me the novel 'The Queen's Gambit' by Walter Tevis. as  a present because he knew I loved the game. I loved the book too, and read it twice. So I was very pleased that it was turned into a Netflix series.

This new collective chess fever reminded me of a time towards the end of my life in Mali, and I thought it may be worth re-posting what I wrote in  August 2016. I called the Blog post

                                      'Chess Psychosis:'


"I am a very mediocre chess player but that doesn’t stop me from spending hours every day recently playing chess on my computer (Microsoft  Chess Titans: the reason why I refuse to update my Windows from Windows 7) There is something here in Mali that is not conducive to reading: I read in England and in Sweden but here I find myself watching old favourite movies and TV series  on DVDs that I bring out from Europe instead. To counteract this passivity and to give myself some mental stimulation – and frankly mainly because I find it exciting- I play a lot of chess. 

My love affair with this game started when I was around twelve, thirteen: my next door neighbour and class mate Britta and I lived a brief moment in search of ‘cultural refinement’  and in our youthful view of things we  saw this state as something that could be achieved through playing chess and listening to classical music. I remember many happy afternoons at her place playing chess and listening to the Brandenburg concertos. Then soon after we discovered boys and other distractions that led us astray from this pure and virtuous road towards refinement and enlightenment.

I did not forget chess entirely  though, and when I lived in Islington in London in the eighties and  early nineties I ran a  chess club every Thursday for three years. Anybody could come and I never knew who would turn up. We did have one or two grand masters  who graced our club once or twice  but it was a light-hearted sort of chess club because alcohol was served and of course alcohol + chess do not mix. But never mind- there was plenty of laughter and there was drawing going on too and poetry- making  by anyone who had not found a partner yet: I still have three glorious ‘chess diaries’ from those happy Thursdays.  I also have my friend Biggles’ (who drew the chess problem above) wonderful chess biscuit cutters that he made for me which he presented me with when he arrived on the chess club’s first anniversary: he had made a chocolate and shortbread chess board with all the chess pieces which were to be eaten as they were taken! It goes perhaps without saying that most of my friends at this time were artists...One of them , dear Stirling, sent me a parcel as Christmas greeting one year. When I opened it I found three kings from three different Chess sets.

That was Islington. Then in the nineties I moved to Notting Hill and lo and behold: noone wanted to play chess!  (An opportunity for a study by an anthroplologist or sociologist perhaps?) So I opened my Tuesday ‘salon’ where people played all sorts of things but not normally chess.

I am just recovering from a rather nasty attack of malaria. It sounds more alarming than it is because there are remedies that are tried and trusted so no one that can afford to pay should need to be suffering for more than three of four days at the most. But there is no doubt that the first couple of days are quite rough. Keita’s old collegue Barry came and gave me injections and they lowered my fever and stopped my vomiting . But I was clearly not in a state to do anything strenuous and I needed to rest. So I started to play chess. This turned out to be a big mistake. Chess should only be played in good health, and even then it should not be overdone. I  remember when I started my chess club in Islington that I became ‘overheated’- that is I played too much . That means one gets into a neurotic state when one sees everything around one as chess pieces and one becomes a chess piece oneself. I mean that if I am walking down a corridor and someone is walking straight towards me I feel that I have to decide whether I am a bishop or a rook and therefore whether I should move out of the way diagonally or crash straight into the oncoming person, taking it. It never actually got to that point but the temptation was there and that was annoying enough.

So I played too much chess and I watched  (once more!)  too much Downton Abbey yesterday. These two past times turned out to be an unholy marriage and the  result was quite frightening in my malarial state. When I had finally had enough and decided to go to bed I could not sleep because I was suffering from chess overheating. The very annoying thing was that everything had turned into chess pieces again, just like that time in Islington. I mean that the chairs in Cousin Isabel’s drawing room had started to move like chess pieces in my mind when I closed my eyes.  When I opened them to escape this  I found that the few light sources I leave on when I sleep here alone now had also become chess pieces. There was no escaping it. I was tired so I decided to pray for peace to go to sleep but this didn’t work either; I found myself transported onto a big chess board in the sky where  I was kneeling in front of the King with all sorts of nasty looking enemy bishops and knights looking down on me ready to pounce! I suppose this King eventually did answer my prayers because I did fall asleep from utter exhaustion in the end..."
My frequent commentator David then sent a comment drawing my attention to a great little silent film which is available on Youtube: Shakhmati Goryachki (Chess Fever)
It is charming and well worth checking out!