ROADS…

3rd December 2019

Dear Dispatches,

I’ve been slack in replying to your last three messages. Been trying to catch up with myself since returning from a trip back to St Ives and places elsewhere. Apparently, I’ve been failing grandly. A good trip, though. Not St. Ives so much – it rained constantly. Aside from seeing a friend or two and my mother, we could’ve done without it. Jasna deciding – for the first time – that she would never want to return there to live. Lana enjoyed it most, since she stayed with her best friend for the week. But the following week, when Jasna and Lana returned to Slovenia for school, I stayed with an old philosopher friend in Neath in Wales and then with an old poet friend, Jimmy Juniper, in Bristol. The first three days talking of life and how to get through it successfully (if that is possible) coloured with dashes of philosophy – the meagre crumbs I know put under the razor mind of Liam. Not certain we came to any major conclusions, but I do know the talk helped sort out a few cracks in my head, cleared some dust from my eyes maybe. Liam’s the funniest man I know and if you’re not careful you’ll end up agreeing with everything he says since it seems the logical thing to do even if you started out with the opposite point of view. Generally, I blurt out a morsel of foolishness, which he then traces back to its possible origin, via the ancient Greeks, stopping for a coffee and cake in Vienna, before settling for the night in a log cabin in Scandinavia.  By the time the metaphorical morning sun comes up and we leave the hut for a swim in the cold lake, whatever I said has been polished clean with the cloth of clear thought and handed back to me in a jar marked ‘Folly’. It’s the best form of mind exercise I know. My old head still feels limber and full of music weeks later. Afterwards, the two nights staying with Jimmy Juniper in his cold-water flat in Fishponds, Bristol, provided different nourishment. We sat around in our overcoats, hats on our heads, talking non-stop in a futile effort to get warm. More oblique, I’d say. Jimmy is the sort of guy who when I called to say I was arriving soon said: I will see you in a necklace of finches. I met him in my early twenties on a coach from Cornwall to London – just after returning from Athens where I’d been living for a year or so. I was reading a New Directions edition of Octavio Paz’s A Draft of Shadows and he had Paz’s Configurations. One book white, one book black. Back then you had to undergo a trial of desire to get your hands on a New Directions book. A teenager at school I used to hitch hike to London from St Ives (close to 300 miles) to go to Compendium Bookshop in Camden Town, scour the shelves, sleep out in Hyde Park for a night or two, then hitch hike back home. That was the only haven you could find any books from ND or City Lights. When the coach stopped in Bristol we had a quick chat standing up for a piss. Once back on the bus, we swopped books. Later he handed me a copy of his The Meaning of Perfume. Weeks later I was in his basement flat lying on the floor listening for the first time to Archie Shepp’s Blasé.  That opened many paths, too. One of which I’ve obviously strayed down right now. Enough to say I spoke more to Liam and Jimmy (I call him Anthony, though now he goes by the name of James) than to anyone else in the last year up this hill. The trip finished beautifully staying three nights with Eva, my eldest, in the East End of London. We did nothing more than walk the streets looking for second-hand bookshops and vegan food, but it was a splendid time. She’d want to stay in the bookshops longer than me, coming out with even more books (ethics, philosophy, psychology, good literature, ah, she makes an old man proud as punch and twice as happy).  The week after I left she was leaving the hospital (she’s a third year medical student, 20 years old), when a teenage girl, maybe 13 or 14, running, frantic, bumped into her shoulder before shooting past. Eva noticed some blood on the girl, turned to see why or who she was running from – medical staff it turned out were chasing the girl. By the time Eva had turned round, the poor girl was mid-air into the road in front of a truck. The truck drove right over her. I can’t imagine how horrible it must’ve been to witness such a thing, or what state the girl was in to need to do that, but it broke me up thinking about it since. Eva said there was a whole class of little school kids on the pavement at the time who saw what happened. Ten minutes later as she was walking home, obviously shaken and upset, she walked by a Chicken Shop (typical East End hangout) to see a 14 year-old on the floor in a pool of blood and an older lad, maybe 16 or so, handcuffed by the police. A stabbing. Luckily, the boy was alive, no major injuries it seemed. Two nights ago her house mate, a six foot or more athletic guy, was mugged on a road close to their house. Nine young men with knives. Life in the city isn’t life on this hill.

One of the things I loved about this hill was the fact you had to drive on a dirt track through the woods for a mile or more to get here. That was the main thing that the handful of houses on the ridge didn’t like. They’ve been saving for years to put down asphalt. Well, now they have it: a glorious/grotesque black ribbon winding through the winter trees. A trace of civilisation that dissatisfies my eyes no end. A reminder of what I thought I’d left behind. The work on the road has called for many ‘actions’ over the last year. An ‘action’ is a hangover I suppose from the communist/socialist times – or it might simply be a ‘hill thing’ – when everyone pulls together to get a big job done, whether it be putting new slate on someone’s roof, or preparing a dirt track, etc. Our job over this weekend was to finish the road which had been laid down earlier in the week. That meant going along beside the local farmer’s tractor and trailer, which was filled with gravel, to shovel and rake the gravel into the gaps on the side of the road. All the neighbours turned up here at 8 o’clock on Friday and Saturday morning for coffee and slivovice. A half dozen of us. Then off we went. Thank god I stopped drinking back in the summer after a particularly heavy session with David Miller the night before I flew back here ( the last time I visited Eva – when I took her to see Archie Shepp – to bring this tale almost full circle – not the Archie Shepp of old I saw in the eighties in the now defunct 100 Club off Oxford Street, but the ‘new’ Shepp, who sang and growled as much as he played the sax. A magical night. He wouldn’t’ve been out of place singing and playing alongside Billie Holiday.) What got me about the night of drinking with David was I couldn’t remember anything which happened after a particular point. Eva woke me with frantic phone calls in the morning ( I had crashed out on the pull out sofa/bed in the spare room), so we just managed to catch the plane etc. I never normally drink that much, having learnt to avoid hangovers years ago by drinking to be merry rather than drunk. Or so I thought. The first week home here the same thing happened: I drank so much I didn’t remember a damn thing from the night before: This was down at our closet neighbour’s. I only remember running home on the beautiful and now vanished for ever old dirt track being chased by someone ( I still don’t know who it was – maybe it wasn’t anyone, maybe I just thought I was being chased?), once home having some serious trouble negotiating the stairs, and I do remember my youngest, Lana, upset and crying, seeing me so damn stupid. In the morning I thought, bugger it, I don’t need to drink anymore. Or not for a while. That was five months back. Mostly it was thinking of Lana being upset. So now I fit in up here quite beautifully: a foreigner, not speaking the language, who doesn’t drink alcohol ( here you get forced fed alcohol, a shot or two of homemade slivovice as soon as you go into or walk by someone’s house, no matter what time of the day it is), who doesn’t eat meat ( along with the alcohol, you might also be presented with a platter of meat, various salamis and sausages, as often as not home butchered and made). Alcohol and meat, I’d say, are the two gods that remain for Slovenes. The two pillars of their culture. Put it this way: the workers beside me drank slivovice and beer continuously from 8 in the morning until close to eight at night when they left our kitchen after feasting on black blood sausages and cabbage with mashed potatoes drenched in pig fat. As we were working ( for good measure, it was snowing/sleeting for most of Saturday), every so often a car would drive down the lane, stop, the driver would open a bottle and miraculously hand around tiny glasses, or one of their wives would walk up the road with a basket of beer and schnapps, as well as there being bottles of pear or cherry slivovice together with a couple of glasses strategically hidden in the hedge along the road. We worked hard in the mornings, less hard in the afternoons, when the drink breaks became longer, the conversations more off kilter and the porn handed round on their mobile phones more explicit. Another day in the hills of Slovenia. My back has been crippled ever since, but the ‘boss’ did take pity on me and let me off working on Sunday. For which I was mightily grateful.

Enough of that. Writing always takes me an age to get round to saying whatever it is I want to say. This time what I want to say is fairly simple: i.e. appreciate being pointed to those articles in or about Dispatches from the Poetry Wars. I check in quite often, but there is so much that goes up on the site, it is easy to miss something. I don’t know if you get much notice or appreciation for the work you both do, but you should. I also thought your idea of sending The Creation of Beauty to a journal in Israel/Palestine a good one. It would be wonderful to see the poem come home, so to speak. Yet I’m at a loss as to know where to send it. Fruitless searches on the internet so far. But I’ll continue looking.

Lana (off school today, she’s not feeling great) just popped down from her bed to show me two pages of a language she invented while supposedly resting. She’s the creative one in the family. A moment later Jasna phoned to say her work is over but she’s off to town to collect the results from a blood test she needs for next week. She has to go into hospital for an operation. Run down as she is right now, she sees it at least as a chance for a rest. She’s hoping for a full week! Eva assures us it is a common enough procedure. Eva’s word is always good enough for me.

You keep well, Kent. May all be merry and bright as one of your compatriots would say. I saw the cover of your forthcoming book on the Shearsman site. It’s a good one. I thought the man on it had something of Octavio Paz about him.

Love, John