Thursday, November 6, 2014

Project Poesia: The Anglo-Catalan Poetry Project

'Project Poesia: The Anglo-Catalan Poetry Project' is a new Wordpress blog of mine, and it is up and running! Posts are my personal translations of original works of Catalan poetry, mainly focusing on Catalonia.

A link to the first post - a translation of Joan Maragall's poem La Fageda d'en Jorda - can be found below. Have a read and a muse! And keep an eye out for new translation in the near future!

Project Poesia

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Catalans Want To Vote: Human Towers For Democracy

The European elections on May 25th certainly sent out a message that politicians, journalists and other commentators across the continent could not ignore. Europe wants change. Some don't want Europe at all. The move to the Right (in some cases, the extreme Right) disappoints and worries me. Personally, I don't think a retreat from Europe and the strengthening of national borders is the answer, as many of the now numerous populist parties claim.

Having said this, it is only understandable that people become unhappy when they feel control of their own lives is steadily being taken away from them. For me, we should look to the effects of globalization and unregulated capitalism for the source of these real problems, not to immigration and immigrants. Reclaiming this control (I would argue) is therefore key to overcoming Euroscepticism and xenophobia.

Some would argue that this involves returning (devolving) power back to the nation-state, from the tentacles of an interfering EU. This type of nationalism is backward and based on myths of national homogeneity, when the reality is that nations today are incredibly diverse, and have even historically been places of multiple comings and goings. Tracing back common collective ancestry is a pointless, groundless farce.

Yet is it possible that a nationalism could be aware of this reality and not suffer from the chauvinistic and exclusivist identity politics that often characterise it? I certainly hope so, for if it exists, it could perhaps affect real change in other nations, to open them up to a more fluid concept of national identity reflective of today's reality. Of all the nationalisms and national movements I have come across, I haven't seen any (on the face of it) as outward-looking and inclusive as that of Catalonia. The region is contrastingly and refreshingly pro-Europe, as the Financial Times has picked up on. Furthermore, to be Catalan is to live and work in Catalonia and want to be Catalan, said ex-President of Catalonia Jordi Pujol. Ancestry doesn't enter the picture. Whether Pujol's words reflect reality and a genuine openness of Catalans to 'others' is something I will be investigating for my MA dissertation.

Castellers in London last year; Jaume Escofet
In the meantime, the Catalans - just like all of us - want control over their own lives. The Spanish government are less than willing to grant it them. Frustrated and angered at this, groups of Castellers are jetting off around Europe to showcase on June 8th a synchronised demonstration of their famed human towers. Organised by the 'Omnium Cultural', a Catalan organisation that works to promote the Catalan language and culture and defend Catalan national rights, this is an attempt to show Europe who the Catalans are and what they want. What they want is clear enough (see post title). Let's hope that the message of who is a Catalan does not give fuel to the fire of exclusive nationalist sentiment that is sweeping across Europe, but challenges that sentiment with a presentation of Catalan identity that is inclusive and open.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Adiós España: Part Two

San Sebastián is a beautiful place. And for me, the most scenic spot in the whole city is La Concha, the long, curving beach where I found myself on my first evening. It was here that I spent the best part of my final day. After all the travelling, the rugged mountains, the dusty plains, the windswept coasts, the museums, and the gloomy majesty of all the medieval churches, this felt like a good ending to it all. Relaxing in the golden heat of a July afternoon, on a beautiful beach, in a stunning bay, in the final city before France, the Bay of Biscay, the Pyrenees. This was definitely the best place to bring the voyage to a close.

A chilled coke sits on the table before me, mocking the 30°C+ temperatures outside. Having trekked up from the bus terminal, I’m now just a short walk from the stop where I will catch the bus to take me back to my dear Capellades. And then it will officially be over. Although in a sense, compared with the last couple of weeks, I already feel as if I’m home. Looking out onto the wide, palm-lined, glamorous boulevard of El Diagonal, I feel an affinity even with this city – outside Capellades, it’s the place in all Catalonia – indeed, in Spain – that I know best.

Familiarity is always comforting – for me at least – after a period of newness and unfamiliarity. It feels like a long time since I left San Sebastián. In a sense, it is – I was up before 7 a.m. Then it was a tranquil walk down to the bus station along sleepy, pristine streets amidst a beautiful, warm morning. With time to spare, I stepped into a nearby cafe, ordered a cafe con leche and settled myself down. On the TV was Pamplona, and all customers in the cafe were intently watching. I realised they were waiting for the day’s running of the bulls for San Fermín. Sure enough, with a ripple then roar of excitement, the action began as the horned fury of the bulls made their way down the streets and a flurry of panicking participants fled in the opposite direction. It was over in two minutes, yet I think I must have held my breath all the way through! 

The journey was a mammoth one, but with no issues. We stopped in Zaragoza to change coaches, cutting the 8 hour journey into mere 4 hour halves. Some serious numbness experienced, it must be said. It was a strange sensation when I touched down again on familiar terrain. I suppose the first thing I have to say about all of this is that it was an achievement – I have a feeling of I did it! I made it! I mean, I look back to the start and in my diary entries see how uncomfortable I was, how alone and cut-off I felt, almost to the point of turning back. Perhaps that’s a little extreme, but it certainly wasn’t only cost that got me to cut a night or two out of the trip – I was missing home, and the people who make it so. But that passed. I had some lovely, unforgettable days from thereon, and I had come to a better understanding of what the journey was going to be like. There were a couple of frustrating days towards the end, but overall, I got to go where I wanted to go, and in the process, saw and visited some amazing things and places, and not all of that planned.

This has been a thing to do, and now. I suppose in a group I could see myself doing some more of this sort of travel, but alone, I feel this is the peak age really. The cusp of life into adulthood, the world of work and all that. Hence it’s time to take yourself out, see how you work, push yourself, see where your weak spots are, see where your breaking points might be. In my case, I can see so many weaknesses, but futility, far from it. Knowing how fragile I am, I can all the more readily put myself under the strong, faithful and loving care of the One whom I believe looks out for me, and all of us. On this trip, I’ve felt immensely the provision of God, and His guardianship. I have walked through unknown places, been with unknown people and yet I was safe. His light goes ever before me. He – as are all loving parents toward their children – is my protective Father, and this trip has helped me grasp that as a reality.

On a larger scale, so too has this entire year been a constant experience of His faithfulness, and the peace that comes when I trust in the knowledge that He is always there, and not only ‘there’ as some distant entity, but right here, desiring a personal relationship like a father to a son. The challenges that I have faced throughout this year have been necessary opportunities to further my faith and draw closer to God. There is always a choice in these moments, to do the right thing or the easy thing, and all too often I choose the latter. But the amazing thing is, He doesn’t love me for what I do, He loves me for who I am; despite who I am, I might even say. That very fact, and the equally amazing one that He forgives me for the times when I do fail, is enough to fuel in me a desire to step out, to choose the right over the easy, light over dark, Him over me. 

You may not believe in the God I do, or perhaps you don’t believe in any god. Perhaps you aren’t sure what to believe. I can testify for me, and how I believe He works in my life, and then it’s your choice as to whether to accept that or not. But I think we can all testify to the power of simple, small kindnesses, to the chain reaction of good that they spark off – it’s uncontainable, it’s unstoppable, it’s contagious! We’ve all seen it, felt it, been caught up in it. Imagine being caught up in that feeling 24/7. Not possible, life’s too hard. Of course it is – honestly, I live a pretty comfortable, secure life and yet I feel the difficulties of daily life keenly. I don’t want for a second to diminish the problems people face; I just want to point to Him who is so much bigger than any problem you are facing, so able and so willing to help, if you’ll only ask Him to. 

I know all this is verging on preaching, but when you love someone it’s only natural to talk about them, to tell people how much you love them and how they’ve changed your life. My life has certainly been changed, and it doesn’t stop here. My travels around Spain, and my time in Catalonia, may have come to a close, but the real journey is still only beginning! The adventure continues...

Saturday, February 8, 2014

San Sebastián (Adiós España: Part One)

In these, the final two posts of my jaunt across the north of Spain, I recount a fittingly memorable stay in my final port of call, San Sebastian...

Let’s start with the positives.  I am comfortably placed, I have food and water, and I am looking out on one of the most beautiful, perfect scenes I’ve ever set eyes on. The bad news is that, for all I know, I may well find this place becomes my bed tonight. Never have I come across a city with so many pensiones. I must have tried fifteen, and yet all were either completely full or simply too much for a tatty, ragged pobrecito like myself to consider. ‘This is San Sebastian,’ said one landlady, ‘And here, this is cheap.

And so it is that I sit here on a most fantastic beach, in a rather strange mood. Right now, in this moment, the scene before me is something to marvel at. A long reach of sand curves around on my left. On the right, the hill with its castle and silhouette statue of Christ looking down on the bay. The bay lies in the middle, glittering as the sun moves lower and lower, closer to touching the gentle waves. And beyond, the hazy shape of an island and sweeping peninsula behind. I’m also feeling OK as I now more or less have a definite time of going home (by which I mean Capellades, all that time and travel ago in Catalonia!) having booked my bus tickets to Barcelona for early Tuesday morning. And yet I have no roof over me tonight. I did envisage it before coming out on this trip, but never once the reality of travelling began. Where do I go? What about my stuff? Will I be left alone? What if it rains? At least it’s warm – 9:30pm right now, and still 26°C. I’ll report back later, but for now, I’ll kill time, kick back and enjoy this view. 

Along the promenade, looking up towards Monte Urgell

Sadly, the sun sets on this beautiful scene.

The fact that I’m writing this suggests I’m still here. In body, yes. In mind, I’m not so sure. I think I’m suffering from a distinct lack of sleep right now, and funnily enough, that’s what I’ve had. 

Let’s recount last night. Once the sun had left me alone in the gloom, I left the beach and headed up onto Monte Urgell, finding it satisfyingly out-of-the-way and with places to disappear. I ended up on a level of one of the old Napoleonic batteries up there. Stunning views across the sea, but not the best place to sleep. Try as I might, no matter what I do, I am always just too uncomfortable to drop off, and later, the wind picks up making it unpleasantly chilly. 

Maybe I get some sleep; I think more likely not. At 3:30am, I’ve had enough so I decide to get up and rove the mountain. For the first two hours, this mainly consists of me bumbling about in the dark. But as 6 o’clock approaches, the sky to the east begins to turn pale blue and green, and then touches of yellow seep in. By this time, I come to El Cementerio de los Inglesos, the ‘English Cemetery’, the resting place for the English soldiers who died fighting here with the Spanish against Napoleon (the mount is littered with forts, batteries, fortifications and other military remnants from over the centuries). In the soft purple hues of the dawn, I pass one of the most delightfully eerie moments I can think of. Graves emerging from the gloom, a pinnacle of rock with an engraving and a clawed eagle watching over the sombre garden. The sound of nothing but my own breathing.
I watch the new day dawn from the battery/my bed

Buenos dias, San Sebastian

Overlooking the bay from Monte Urgell and its Napoleonic forts

I then retrace my steps, now able to see where I had been, passing the base of the castle, and Napoleon’s fort. Eventually, I emerge at the foot of the mount above the fishing village and over-looking the entire bay. I watch the morning sun hit the hills behind the city, and then the houses on the far side of the bay. Then the golden light drifts across the water, lighting up the yachts bobbing on the surface, before it reaches the old town, catching the spire of the cathedral. And it feels like my day; I had been up before it, and I had been there as it was birthed, a new day. Never before had there been one exactly like this one. And I was there as it came into existence.  

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Basque-ing in the Sun

Appropriately, we’re on the home leg of my travels now, being as they are rapidly fading into a glorious summer haze that is somehow over half a year ago now. After Santiago, I turned the corner, making stops at the naval towns of La Coruña and El Ferrol (birthplace of General Franco). This was followed by a rather gruelling six-and-half hour train journey east to Oviedo (though with some stunning scenery, especially on the coast when the track was so close to the edge the train appeared to be aquaplaning). Some beach bathing in glossy Santander preceded a return into the Basque country, and its largest city, Bilbao. Most famous for the indescribable edificial mass that is the Guggenheim Museum (which I was fortunate to visit several years earlier) this stay in Bilbao yielded not so glamorous though no less eye opening cultural experiences. On my pretty frustrating search for a place to stay, I unwittingly strayed into what I do believe is referred to as the ‘red light district’. Despite it being only about 6pm, I saw quite enough for it to warrant its name, and we'll leave it there, as I very quickly did. Later on and another search, this time for some dinner, took me through the North African quarter. Well yes, I was offered plenty of stuff which I politely declined, however I honestly never felt uncomfortable here. Even at 10pm, there were kids running around, old ladies chatting on doorsteps, people greeting and laughing in the street. Put simply, it felt real, and that really was what this trip was all about.

Guernica today
Mural of Picasso's famous work, Guernica
So having seen a side to Bilbao that doesn’t feature in many guidebooks, I left the city on its chugging ferrocarril train, headed for the ancient Basque centre of Guernica (Gernika in Euskadi, the Basque language). Folk who know their history – or perhaps their art – will probably have heard of Guernica. As art, the name is given to an iconic piece by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso. Commissioned for the Paris Exhibition of 1937, it stood close to an eagle-crowned pavilion, the contribution from Nazi Germany. The painting is a depiction of the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 39), but more specifically inspired from the horrific event that befell the town of Guernica on April 26th 1937. German planes flew over, dropping their bombs, obliterating most of the town and killing hundreds of its inhabitants. Even though Spain was in fact neutral in the Second World War, Franco was at least indirectly supported by Hitler in his fight against the Communist Republicans, and as one of the last seats of resistance to Franco’s forces (who moved in immediately following the town’s destruction), the bombing of Guernica is seen as a blatant conspiracy between the Spanish Nationalist Government and the Third Reich. To this day however, the Spanish Government have denied any involvement whatsoever in the attack (the German Government formally apologised in 1999). 

(Check out these interesting articles if you want to know more: )

On a sweltering July day, surrounded by the terracotta roofs of the town and the picturesque green hills beyond, it is almost impossible to imagine the devastation that took place here. The Museo de la Paz (Museum of Peace) goes some way to reconstructing the events. After wandering through a room with pictures and pieces devoted to achieving peace, a group of us stepped into an ominously dark room, set out to appear as a normal house interior from the 1930s. We stood there in the dark, listening to the voice of a local resident recounting her life from that time, and of that night. Then came the droning of the planes, the room shook, there was a great sound of explosions and light eventually came to reveal the destruction caused. The museum as a whole is very moving, without making you feel as if you are there to ogle at people’s suffering – well worth a visit if you’re ever in the area.
The 'Old' tree, grandad to the current oak
Inside the Meeting Room
Hiding from the scorching heat, I had lunch in a completely rebuilt square, adjacent to a pretty park where the old market used to stand. Before it closed, I walked up to the Meeting House of the Basque Parliament, which has traditionally been held in Guernica since the 14th Century. Within the building there is a common room, about the size of tennis court, with an incredible stained-glass ceiling, while in the Meeting Room itself, you can see portraits of each Count of Biscay (head of the Parliament) stretching back to Count Tello in 1366. The most important place for the parliament is not, however, found in this room, but under the eaves of an old oak tree outside. By tradition, the Basques held assemblies under the ‘Tree of Gernika’, and kings and lords would come to make oaths under its auspices, right up until 1876. The tree’s ‘dynasty’ has been preserved since the parliament’s founding over 600 years ago. The current tree is a bit underwhelming really, but the trunk of its granddad can be found in an impressive little temple nearby.
Parliament Common Room with incredible ceiling (upside down, sorry!)

My short stay in Guernica allowed me to experience several centuries of European history, some of it reaching back into a medieval past that begins to fade into myth and legend, and some of it reaching forward with gnarled hands as we do our best to thrust it back into to its box. It’s a place where the cords of cultural heritage and historical reality are wound tightly together to create a patchwork tapestry featuring the vibrant flushes of Basque culture, and the dark shading of modern history. Like all great works though, this one has yet to be finished...  

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Compostela - a Poem

Mystical city and journey’s end;
Take rest, you weary holy-men.
Seek the streets that guide you in,
Where the grey-stone walls shoulder the evening,
And whispers of age call the phantom pilgrim on,
Turning softly the page of time.
All sublime, the narrow way lined by shells,
Dun and worn.
Torn, broken; the tread of humanity.
The scene where all roads lead.
Met with the turrets of heaven, mossy green,
Scraping the dusk of its lustre;
Setting sun tones in the stone,
Mustering bones that groan and break.

They are all come to celebrate, to partake,
To make way, make space,
To taste the glory of this place.
The fabled city where lies the Lesser
Set upon a facade of glory.
Calling the masses, the peel of bells.
The tolls of hearts yearning,
Burning to be filled.
Iago, the names are many, the tales are more.
Who can say for sure?
When the crowd breathes their hush of holiness and awe,
And the choir fill all
With their golden calls to winged ones.

Do they belong, these thoughts,
That so take flight in song to belie all reason?
A treason of my senses;
Through what lenses do I faithfully describe
The peace inscribed upon this place?
Of airs that leave but a taste of more to come.
Of when all is done, of when the road ends
And the friends of the way send out the call.
In the silence of it all,
Will you then recall Compostela?
That star of the field once concealed to you,
Then, so beautifully revealed;
Will you remember the night and what came to view,
Upon your way through ancient Santiago.