Wednesday, June 27, 2012

I arrived in Mali at 1am yesterday morning from Casablanca on an absolutely jam packed Royal Air Maroc flight. The heat of the Bamako night enveloped me as I emerged once more onto African soil. I felt a jolt of what must be described as Joy.

So far so good.

The problem was that none of the luggage for the 100+ mainly Malian passengers had turned up. Furthermore, no one told us anything of course. So an hour later we were all watching the luggage conveyor band go around, with what turned out to be luggage from another flight! It eventually became clear that there was to be no luggage arriving. If we wanted to retrieve our possessions we all- a hundred strong!- had to file into a tiny little office through a miniscule door and give our phone number, written down by an official who was not forthcoming with any infomation either, but suggested that we could phone back on Thursday!

Interestingly, I had, as usual, spent two months in Europe without being angry even once. And here I was, about 45 min into my Mali experience, ready to kill someone. This someone took the shape of a large woman who quite unceremoniously just barged her way past me. ‘Excuse me, Madame’ , I pointed out, ’there is a queue here. I am before you,’. She glanced at me and made a sucking noise through her teeth, the sort of noise Africans normally reserve for halfwits of no consequence, and ignored this salvo totally. Meanwile her friend was attempting the same thing. But this time I physically barred her way with my arm. This jostling made me accidentally touch the first woman- I mean how could I not! We were all crushed up against another! ‘Don’t you touch me!” she spat at me and then: ‘this is our country you know!’ So I spat back and informed her it is my country too; I live here since 6 years back, and that anyway I failed to see the relevance of her remark. I too had lost my luggage! It very nearly came to blows.
Then suddenly there was someone else pushing through on the other side, and I repeated the blocking gesture on the door post with some gusto, reinforced by an expletive. This time however the offender turned out to be, on closer inspection, wearing army fatigues and just co-incidentally, as the icing on the cake, bearing the name Sanogo on his uniform! I found myself in the position of retreating, ignominiously, and even uttering a feeble ‘excuse me!’ to the soldier. It is of course not recommended behaviour to insult soldiers in Africa. They are always right by definition.

But apart from this traumatic interlude it is fun to be back in Bamako, at Ann’s, even without luggage.

Amede from La Maison Rouge popped into Ann’s this afternoon. He is on his way to Mopti, to check out the lay of the land...At least he and I still have our hotels, although it is doubtful that we will be able to survive on any tourist trade. His friend Awa from La Maison in Timbuktu is less fortunate. She is back in France, her lovely hotel having been appropriated by the Jihadists who are using it for their Sharia court and head quarter! This is where they recently decided to give, publicly, 100 lashes each of the whip to a young couple for the crime of having a child while they are only engaged and not married.

Bamako, just like before, strikes me as a place where nothing has changed. Half the country is atrophied, many thousands of people suffer terrible hardships in refugee camps; Gao once more is the scene of serious clashes between the local population, the Islamist Ansar Dine and the Touareg MNLA but this is elsewhere. And Elsewhere matters little, seemingly, to the jolly bands of affluent youths who continue to have hamburgers and ice cream at Amandine’s as if nothing had happened here...

Friday, June 22, 2012

Many years ago I shared an East London studio with my dear friend Kathy Prendergast, the distinguished Irish sculptor. I revel in happy memories of this time: I particularly enjoyed the messy side of artistic life. Although Kathy tells me that I am exaggerating, I remember quite well that we used to sit down and have a tea break, then cheerfully throw the teabags over our shoulder onto the floor. Eventually, we would have a sweep-up, every two months or so. I was gloriously and childishly happy with being able to be as messy as I liked, and wonder if this is some sort of psychological condition, the ‘mud-pie syndrome’(?), which found its culmination in my building a mud hotel?

Kathy's sculptor husband Dan in his studio

I have been staying with Kathy,Dan and their children in their beautiful and creatively messy Georgian house in Islington. This is a wonderfully warm place to be, full of laughter and life. Kathy and Dan have been very inventive, energetic and successful in thinking up schemes for getting their three children into good London schools on scholarships. This means that Aeofa has to play the bassoon, having been given a rare scholarship at a posh school only available for bassoon playing girls! She does this quite cheerfully as you can see in this picture, while her older brother Oisin is making delicious biscuits.

I have always thought that it is a waste of time to cook biscuits, since the dough is so good...

Iarla, Aeofa’s twin brother is no less talented as a pastry cook, and he also plays the saxofon. He too, has found a place in a posh school I think, because when I asked if he could say something to me in Latin he informed me that ‘Frank est in hortas’.
(Frank is the family cat.)

Off to Mali on Monday!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Something extraordinary happened last year, and this was the reason why I went to Norway two days ago to visit a woman I have never met before.

I had an admirer.
This in itself is of course pleasant and flattering, only that this time my beau was ninety years old!

I met him a year ago in Sweden. He was one of my father’s college friends: they all studied forestry together. These old men have met up at frequent intervals over the years. They then don their traditional green waist coats; they drink schnapps, hold speeches and sing rowdy drinking songs at old-fashioned formal dinners. My mother is always invited too, although my father died a long time ago, before my birth in fact. It is not the first time that Venus strikes at these events, because Mother met MNH (Mother’s New Husband), another of my fathers study companions, 16 years ago now at another get –together. Last year I was invited too.

Kjell, my admirer, was the oldest of them all at ninety. Tall and elegant, he was one of the two Norwegians in my father’s year. I remember him quite well. I think we spoke a little, I flirted with him in a friendly sort of way, and later told my mother jokingly to let him know that he was definitely my favourite among them all…
But he remembered me in a different way. I seem to have left a deep impression on him, which I was not aware of at the time. He called me in Djenne a few times. We decided, in what I still thought was a light hearted way, to meet up this summer. Then he became ill. This is when his daughter Asgjerd entered the scene. In the last weeks of his life she and I were in constant email contact. He was too weak to speak or write himself, but it seems that I was still on his mind, and she conveyed his messages to me. I wrote to him through her, still telling him to make sure that he would get better so we could meet this summer, and finally, when it became clear that this would no longer be possible, I told Asgjerd to tell him that if that was the case, then I wanted to make an appointment with him ‘on the other side’, as it were, and that when we met up there, could he please bring my father along too? When Asgjerd told him this message, apparently he squeezed her hand in agreement, presumably. He died soon afterwards.
He had a strong faith it appears, and he was not worried about dying. He had been a little taken aback when he found out that I was a Catholic, but he had soon soon recovered and said that he accepted me the way I am!
Keita was of course aware of all of this going on, and we thought it was all quite funny, especially when Kjell said that he wished that he had met me ten years ago. This would have meant that he would have been 80!

But what lingers of this is nothing ridiculous or laughable. I feel enormously privileged and moved that I touched someone like Kjell, this grand old man, and that I might have been present somehow with him at the end of his life. His daughter Asgjerd seems to think that it was helpful in some way that I continued the contact into his last moments.

So this summer, rather than meeting Kjell, I went to see his daughter Asgjerd of course. A most beautiful woman,so elegant,soignee and accomplished that she might have made me feel like a country bumpkin, had she not also been very kind and gracious, like her father. We spent an intense few hours together, talking and talking. She picked me up in Oslo, took me to her childhood home in Honefoss, through the grandiose Norwegian countryside, which makes Sweden look like a poor relation.

The following morning Asgjerd drove me back early to Oslo and dropped me at the station since I was supposed to catch the train to Sweden, but the blasted train times had changed! I suddenly had 4 hours to spend in Oslo on my own on a Sunday. I ambled up to the splendid Oslo Grand Hotel where I thought I might spend the morning having nice breakfast, looking at the world going by. I sat down in the sumptious turn –of- the- nineteeeth- century interior, and said first of all that I was not going to eat, just have a coffee. So the waiters came up and kept filling my coffee cup up, then some other waiters came and gave me orange juice, then another one arrived with a trayful of little tiny glasses of carrot or cucumber or beetroot juice, and another with some other goodies. I kept drinking and eating everything thankfully and enjoying myself, looking at the scenery. Then I decided that the breakfast buffet did look rather scrumptious and that perhaps I should have some, so I waived one of the friendly waiters over and told him that I would eat after all. Ok, fine he said. What’s your room number Madame? I said that I was not staying at the hotel. They said that if that was the case, I would have to leave! But they told me that I didn’t have to pay for the coffee or anything else that they had given me. So I beat a hasty retreat, although rather taken aback; I mean, it wasn’t as if I was not able or willing to pay!
I therefore found myself more or less thrown out of the Grand Hotel in Oslo with another two hours to spare! Into a drizzling rain to boot… I wandered, somewhat disconsolately, towards the railway station, feeljng as if I had just been discovered in flagrante in some heinous misdemeanour!

And here is where things once more took a fortuitous, I might even say divinely inspired turn. I suddenly heard church bells and became aware that I was walking past the Oslo Domkirke (the Oslo Cathedral), and that it was 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning.
I wandered in therefore, more by a happy accident than by design to the beautiful cathedral, with its mid 20-century painted ceilings. It was a fine service, complete with the boy choir of Atlanta, Georgia on a visit. I must admit that I was deeply moved and was unable to stop the tears from rolling down my cheeks throughout the service. If I hadn’t missed the train, and if I hadn’t been thrown out of the Grand Hotel this lovely experience would not have come my way. I had an irrational but very real feeling that my whole morning had been somehow orchestrated by my old admirer Kjell who was saluting me on my visit and taking me by the hand!

I walked out of the Oslo Cathedral with its grand front door where the Beatitudes are sculpted in bronze. One in particular presents a special challenge before leaving for Mali and Djenne where I might be faced with some real suffering. ‘Blessed are the Merciful, for they will be shown mercy...

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Swedish forests are speeding by my train window under overcast skies. Now and then a lake appears for a second, its calm surface mirroring a red painted wooden house with the ubiquitous white gables. I am travelling due west between Stockholm and Olso, where I will spend the night before leaving for the continent and finally England again. I am meeting up with Asgjerd, a woman I have never met before, but with whom I was in constant email contact in Djenne during the months of January and February. But more of this later…

I am reading Keith Richard’s autobiography ‘Life’, and I am surprised at how likeable he is. Rather than the arrogant, blasé degenerate that I was expecting- the image of himself as the ultimate Rock & Roll anti hero that he has successfully promoted over the last four decades - he turns out to be funny and strangely modest about himself both as a person and as a musician/songwriter. Although in the latter function there is a dichotomy: he has no doubt that he is great, there is no false modesty about his achievements but at the same time he has a humility in the face of the creative process:
‘Great songs write themselves. Your’e just being led by the nose or the ear. The skill is not to interfere with it too much, ignore intelligence, ignore everything; just follow it where it takes you. You really have no say in it, and suddenly, there it is… You think: where did I steal this from? No, no, that’s original! And you realize that songs write themselves, your’e just the conveyor.’
And Tom Waits writes of Keith Richards: ‘Everybody loves music. What you really want is for music to love you. And that’s the way I saw it when I was with Keith. It takes a certain amount of respect for the process. Your’e not writing it, It is writing you. Your’e its flute or its trumpet. Your’e its strings. That’s obvious around Keith.’
Another time Richards talks about sitting down with the guitar and ‘letting the stuff come to me. Something would arrive. Incoming’. As if there is a force on the other side that has a will of its own.
Fortunately this creative process doesn’t only apply to the greats. In my work with creating clothes I have often noticed that the fabric itself wants to do something. This is partly, but not entirely a question of the physical characteristics of the cloth and its natural fall. The object being created wants to speak to the creator. The creator must listen or the object will be a failure. ( Oh, I just realized that I already wrote about these ideas on June 1st 2007, but nevermind, I started so I'll finish..)
Is there another world, a parallel perfect reality where all the music and all the art is just waiting: an infinite number of masterpieces in every field, just waiting to be discovered? Are artists – musicians, writers, or anyone else involved in the creative process- just here as the tools to open up, to understand and to interpret this other place, to decipher it? Did Michaelangelo’s Pieta, or Purcell’s Cold Song from King Arthur; Goethe's' Zueignung to Faust ; Dylan’s Hard Rainor indeed the Stones' Gimme Shelter always exist in this other world, waiting for the artists to discover them?
I think perhaps this place is Heaven?
But what about the art that expresses pain or disillusionment? It is still Heaven, because in the expression is the resolution and the redemption.
And what about those that disagree and are untouched by certain artists: Cressida for instance thinks Dylan can’t sing (which is true but beside the point) and is hugely over rated.
Well, there are many rooms in my father’s mansion…

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Back at lake Siljan enjoying the breathtakingly clear atmosphere of the cool early Swedish summer. This place is about as different as it could possibly get to the dusty heat of Djenne...
But in three weeks only I will be back in Mali- what will I find in Djenne?

The hotel is down to a skeleton staff as usual for the month of June when Papa,Baba, Maman and Igor all go on holiday while Boubakar tends the garden and Pudiogou continues looking after the horses and the donkies, as well as opening the rooms, dusting and chasing out the termites every day.
This June closure is a yearly fixture. At the end of the month I will be back and the hotel will open again as usual on the first of July.
But it is of course not a normal year... The other day I had the bitter sweet pleasure of receiving our 2012 'TripAdvisor' recommendation badge (which means that the hotel received good reviews all last year from kind guests that took the time to write). But what now?

Djenne was already suffering from the down turn in tourism before the coup and the disasters in the north. It is likely that I will encounter a situation that has deteriorated badly. Keita is in Segou. He will accompany me back to Djenne of course. I look forward to my homecoming with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.