Monday, March 28, 2016

History as Legend from New York to London, Brighton to Dorchester, Falmouth to Tintagel

Scenes from El Quixote restaurant, remembering Dad.
Myths from the Chelsea Hotel top to Stonehenge and Tintagel Castle

The night before we left for London, the girls joined me for my annual pilgrimage to El Quixote restaurant, by the Chelsea Hotel, to recall Dad on the second anniversary of his death. This was a space where Dad found a sense of beatitude, in a life of wandering, where home was often hard to come by.   Two years later this ritual  still connects his story with our lived experiences in New York.  

“But he’s further away,” I explained to number as we walked to the restaurant, looking at the old bodega where dad used to buy sandwiches when he stayed at the hotel up the street. 

“There was nothing better than meeting him at the Chelsea and talking all night,” I recalled.  He’s gone, but the conversation continues, like John Donne’s hands eternally revolving through time.  He loved history and politics, books and letters, travel and reflection, as do I.

John Donne at the National Portrait Gallery

So Caroline, my two kids, and their cousin (herein referred to as number one, two and three) traveled to London the next day, where we would explore family legend and the space between being home and being away. We had plans to see some of my favorite people, Dad's buddies, and the best men at our wedding sixteen years ago.

 There is always a contact high arriving the next morning after the big flight and journey.

                “Line for Cockfosters” explained the train conductor.  “Please mind the gap.”

                “Cockfosters or bust” 

We gradually made our way out for Shoreditch, where we were staying.  English really is becoming a foreign language from American.  The differences are striking.  When we think of pants, these are clothes we put over our underwear.  The Brits think otherwise.  When we think of fanny packs, we think of a pack held around the waist.  When the brits think of it

“To love London is to love life,” explained a friend years ago, after spending the summer there in 1985.
“We saw live aid together,” he reveled. That was my first trip to London, just a couple of days after that big show.

Since then I have been back many times, as part of my academic work, giving talks around the UK. 
It’s the first trip here for the girls.  Over lunch the girls confess they want to move here when they are 18.

 My old friend James, who usually joins me for these trips, was on hand for the visit, catching a quick Eurostar train from Belgium.

The six of us wander taking in shops, stopping in for pints, a gin and tonic at the Gibson, stopping for dinner at a Bavarian beer house and the girls eventually go to bed. James and I walk and talk all night long, taking in the England France rugby match.  This is our main fun, chatting for hours.  Here, friendship extends through years and years of these trips and conversations, taking us from the streets of San Francisco and Poughkeepsie, Los Angeles and New York, where we first hung out, through trips to Berlin, Lisbon, Barcelona, Paris, and throughout the UK.  Its one big conversation extending back over two decades and hopefully leaning well beyond that. We chat until the wee hours.

Dreaming later that night, I find myself riding my bike for hours, throughout the city, over the city, and gradually it dawns on me that I am late.  But I don’t know for where.  It occurs to me I’m supposed to be going to see dad, but I do not have directions.  I have left without them.  I  am late for dinner.  But not sure how late.  Still I keep riding over the mix masters, like an angel, looking down at the city. I find myself talking with dad.  He’s not quite himself, about to shuffle off, so I say goodbye.  That is something I never really was able to do as he got sicker and sicker in his last days two years ago.  I had been going to see him every two months, but hadn’t made a plan for a March trip after my January trip.  But this time, I was able to really say goodbye, tearfully looking at him with the recognition that this was probably our last trip together. I held him, looking at him, we bid adieu.

James and I strolled through the city the next day, joining the girls for a stroll to Brick Lane, where the girls explore the thrift shops, taking in the graffiti and urban aesthetics of the graffiti covered streets and neighborhoods.  The vibrancy of the colors and energy inspired everyone.  

The girls order a poutine from a street vendor. 

“The ideal time for eating a poutine is eight minutes,” explains the street vendor, cheerfully giving the girls tips on enjoying this potato snack.

“Delicious,” they respond. “We’re definitely moving here when we are eighteen.”

They take more pics and we take in a few more shops, digging through vintage shoes, doc martins, and so on.  I miss the Kings Road of my first trips to London.  But this is pretty close.  London has changed a lot over the years of my trips, but it still surprises. Everyone takes pictures, trying to capture the energy of the streets.

James has to get to Piccadilly Circus to catch a train back home to Belgium.  The air is brimming with excitement as we emerge from the tube station.  We snap a few shots and say goodbye to James, wondering off to Trafalgar Square.  No matter how many times I come here, this space fills me with a sense of excitement and awe.  Not that I can look at the British without thinking of the horrors of this history of colonial domination, of many bones the British crushed among those disobeying British Colonial rule of India, or the how many fingernails the British pulled out of the fingers of the Irish Independence revolutionaries, or the Scotts.  The horrors of history are everywhere.  But so are the invitations to review it anew and possibly learn from it.  This is perhaps the my favorite things about coming to England, the opportunity to review it all anew.
This writer and his buddy James at Piccadilly.

The year before James showed me his favorite portrait, the Execution of Lady Jane Grey, who was killed after serving as queen for just a few days, inside the National Gallery. 

This year, we’d continue exploring of this history of England.  Caroline suggested we drop by the National Portrait Gallery.   Part of the wonder of our relationship takes place in these sharing moments.  She’s shown me to look at the portrait as the most intimate, the most telling of art forms.  We go see John Singer Seargent’s portrait’s whenever we can.  Some of my favorite of Caroline’s works is her series of portraits of New Yorkers as Vermeers.  The first floor was late 20th century works.

“Lets go look at the Tudors,” she suggested, pulling everyone upstairs.

So we wandered, looking at narrative portraits.  I strolled through my heros’ John Donne and Kingsley Amis, taking in a series of nudes, photos of Churchhill, histories of the monarchy, of queer Elizabeth and her family, who we all know from the movies and mellow dramas. 

Hockney and Amis at the NPG.

Back down to the first floor for the David Hockney and Bowie Aladdin Sane photographs. 

“Its thrilling to see the history of England through portraits,” mused Caroline, her eyes, blurred with images, overstimulated, we stumbled back out into the square, taking in the scene, enjoying the energy, and a coffee.

Dad’s old buddy Richard, from law school, had agreed to see us for tea and an early dinner. So we plugged his address into the new London tours city ap on the phone and grabbed a bus to Kensington.

The city was now opening up, lights pouring in as we sat at the top of the double decker bus.

Richard and Heather have been friends for decades.  Dad and Richard loved Shakespeare, insulted each other about their respective undergraduate colleges – Harvard and Yale – and enjoyed decades of friendship, as kids got older, careers harder, and small children grew up to cope with “the tree D’s,” as Richard aptly put it, “drugs, divorce and dyslexia.”

I first met him in London after that Live Aid show and we gossiped about it.

As I’ve done all year long, I’ve tried to make contact with Dad’s friends to tell them about Dad’s last days, Uncle Bruce in State College, and so on. 

So we talked about Dad and books, London and Shackelton.  Number two and Richard compared notes about the traveler.  Ricard showed her his original Arthur Worsley photos from that famous voyage of the Endurance a century prior. 

Number two, Richard and I strolled ahead, looking out at the park.

“When you travel to London on your own, you might stay there some time,” noted Richard pointing at the hostel.

Number two told Richard about her school and its design, the architecture on Prospect Park West.

They talked about comic books and graphic novels and the light shone through the afternoon in the park. 

We grabbed a pint in the pub and took in Chinese food as we do every time we come to London with them.

Richard always orders good ethnic food.  We talked about the climate and the world changing, London, ever shifting through the last thousand years from the Norman Conquest, through Plagues, fires, and today’s waves of construction projects rummaging through the ruins below the streets, as the city is remade anew, with the poor pushed further out.

But will England pull itself out of Europe?  Richard does not think so. But others disagree.            

“I miss your Dad,” Richard confessed. Not a man for sentimentality, that was enough.  It was enough to see him and remember Dad together as we continue our now three decades of friendship.

Richard suggested we visit the Tower of London.  So the next morning we made our, stopping in the St Margaret Pattens Church, first built on 1067 and remade in 1667 after the great fire of London.  We walked through the All Hallows by the Tower, a church directly across from the Tower, built in 675 AD.

History is everywhere here -
the tower on the Thames River, with views of London Bridge, people everywhere.  The stories of skullduggery seem to emanate from the very stones of the place.  Ann Boleyn killed here for not  daring to bear Henry the VIII a son, Edward’s young sons killed by Richard the III because they stood between himself and the graves.  Two hundred years later, remains of two young children were found in the tower where they were last seen. The treachery was everywhere.

At long last we walked away, bound for lunch and Oxford Street, taking in as much as we could take in, Boots, Lush, and the Doc Martins store. 

Sometimes its all too much on the road. Tears and shopper’s resource gripping the moment.

So, we wandered to the Eagle, our local in Shoreditch.  This was nothing a few pints and Shepard’s pie could not cure.

Tuesday was our last full day in London.  So we stacked it with more things than we could possibly take in, so as to drive everyone mad, with delight and delirium.  It’s a sickness of traveling, but we are compelled to see everything.  Yet, in a city like London, its never quite possible.

Still we tried.  We had an hour or so planned for the Victoria and Albert Museum before lunch at Camden Market, a historic walking tour, Churchill’s Bunker and dinner with Matteo. 

Walking into the V and A, we were blown away before we even made it through the first majestic corridor of Rodins, the Raphaels, Botticellis, Shakespeare’s first folio, and the other gems.

Number three’s mom spent a year in college here.  She suggested we hit the Camden Market. Walking between canals and artists, we enjoyed mac n cheese, looking at what the city had to offer. 

We wouldn’t be able to do everything so we jumped back on the tube.  We love the tube. And caught a ride on the river.  In Spain, we met some hikers from Canada who suggested we walk it.  For now the boat ride would be enough.

News was everywhere about 34 killed in Belgium, as retaliation for authorities catching one of the men responsible for the Paris attacks the previous fall.

My brother shot me a text suggesting we get out of London.  I texted James.  He was OK.  He’d taken the subway the killers had been on earlier in the day.

I wasn’t going to leave London.  Fuck that.  As cliché as it might sound, that really was letting the bad guys win. 

“You can tell something is wrong,” noted the ship captain.  “The flag is at half mass.”  He pointed at what looked like Buckingham Palace.  I wasn’t sure. “Its only ever at half mass when dignitaries or MP’s have died.”

Everyone was speculating.  Signs of Tony Blair were everywhere in town. Londoners were still furious about him getting England into the Iraq war after the WMD’s debacle. He would suggest Europe has to push back hard or watch itself consumed with ongoing battles.

So we floated down the old river, taking in stories of a thousand years of the city of London, stories of the old globe, the tower and a city in constant flux. 

Anything but done, we strolled through St James park and the Westminster Abby, grabbing a tube to see my old buddy matteo, the second of my best men from the wedding.  We’d all converge at the Cow in Notting Hill.  Gregarious as ever, Matteo had already bought three pints for us on our arrival.

Caroline, Matteo and I.

He hadn’t seen the girls for years and years. 

“You have to let me produce your trip to Sicily,” he implored.

One of my oldest friends, we stayed up talking for hours and hours, planning the trip, thinking about kids, and romance, conspiring about travel and growing up, and where it was all leading us.

I love hearing his stories, lounging in his majestic apartment.

There, we talked about Dad, who Matteo knew back in 1986 and ’87 and a summer camp we could send number two to learn more French.

“Take them to Sandito and Montova,” he explained.  “There are Tissians there.  Its my favorite city in Italy.  Where you are going in Sicily is wonderful.”

But the world is changing.

“Venice is five feet under water right now,” I offered.

 “Venice will be a casualty,” he acknowledged.  “You have to read 2312.  It’s a sci fi book about the future.”

Wednesday, we’d meander from London to Brighton to Dorchester.  It was another crazy, too many things jammed into one day kind of day.  And so it was.  I had a talk at the Political Studies Association Conference in Brighton and a few meetings.  But I had to get there first.  First we thought we’d drive, but we got the date wrong on the rental.  So then we grabbed the train.  But Belgium jitters were gripping the train stations, many of which were closed as the tube made its way through.  But somehow we got to Brighton. The best thing I did all day was stop and walk through town on my arrival, taking in the scene, looking at playbills and posters.  The Who was supposed to play there, as they had so many decades prior.  Walking, smelling the sea air, I thought about the Mods and Rockers, who used to fight here on bank holidays such as this.  51 were arrested there after the seaside riots of 1964 that inspired the Who’s album Quadrophenia. And Stuart Cohen famously wrote about the clashes between the subgroups, which inspired fear and panic. Today, homeless people are everywhere here.

“They even seem to have a political consciousness,” noted my friend Uri.

So, I talked with colleagues and friends, gave my talk on Sustainable Urbanism, navigated questions, and so on.

THe girls and I had  planned to make it to Dorchester, where Dad had long pontificated that the Shepard’s emerged, immigrating to Dorchester Mass and then South Carolina, before church records from Midway Church in Moultry can trace the Shepards to South Georgia.

As Dad explained to me in an oral history.

“Well, who were the Shepards?” I asked.


            “Dust covered Calvinist sons of bitches.  That’s my roots.  Dorchester England, they got their roots right from the Puritans.  They came over with the puritans in the 1680’s.  They came with the puritans, to Dorchester Mass. There’s a Shepard Street right there, spelled the same way.   Dorchester England to Dorchester Mass to Dorchester SC, to Georgia, where they established a colony of thieves and cut throats in Savannah Georgia in a place between something or another, settled in another fever swamp and built a church there like a New England Church. What i’m tryng to tell you is you have an ancestry that you can pass onto your kids that isn’t known to others, that you can trace from the people you knew to the Midway church records which trace us to 1740.”

My cousin Morrie traces the story from the same origins.

My information on the Shepards ends with James Shepard who was a Blacksmith in Pon Pon, SC.  He died in 1759, probably from Yellow Fever, there were multiple outbreaks that year. His widow, Elizabeth, son Thomas Shepard and stepson John Roberts moved from Pon Pon to Midway, Liberty County, GA sometime between 1759 and 1772. His widow had previously been married to a member of a prominent Charleston Huguenot family. When she died in 1784 in Liberty County, they took her back to Charleston to be buried next to her first husband. We do not know where or when James Shepard was born or his parents.  Pon Pon was an offshoot of the Dorchester colony in SC. It was called a Chapel of Ease, because it was for church communicants that lived too far away from Dorchester to  attend church weekly. The Dorchester colony settlers came from Dorchester, MA by way of Hartford, CT.  

So much of this is conjecture.  But there is a story there within the family lore.

And this was where we were driving out of Brighton, connecting the Shepards from Dorchester Mass and SC with Dorchester England.

“I am dreading it,” noted number three.

“Don’t be so snarcky, its going to be wonderful,” I cheered as we drove the two hours from Brighton, where the girls had a blast, before making our way to Dorchester. “Dorchester or bust.”

“This is like a Camino town,” noted number one, referring to the little towns where we stayed in Spain over the last two summers of walking the Camino de Santiago.

“its like a metropolis compared to where we stayed in Ireland,” noted to Caroline.

“Why do you think people left here in the 17th century?” I asked the pub owner at the Ship’s Inn, where we stayed in Dorchester.

“Probably Judge Jeffries,” noted the bar’s owner, referring to a magistrate who sentenced many to death, sending many others to Australia.  “Go to Hang Man’s Cottage. People wanted to kill him.  He had to create tunnels from his house to the court.  If he walked in the street, people would try to kill him.”

“So when did people first arrive here?” I asked.

“Probably 4 or 5 thousand years ago.  It was a Roman settlement.  There is still a Roman Villa up the street from here.”

“What did people do here?”

“Farming, mills, creating roads.”

An experienced pub talker, Caroline talked with the guys for hours, drinking Guinness, hanging out.

“Now let me ask you a question?” the pub owner asked.

“Tell me about Trump?  What’s happening with him.”

The conversation went on well into the night. We’d discuss nationalism, history, questions about what England was going to do about the Brexit vote.

The next day, we’d take in an English breakfast on Trinity Street and meander through town, taking in the Roman Town House, the Thomas Hardy Statue, and the Hang Man’s cottage, of Judge Jeffries, St Peter’s Church, where Reverend John White was buried.  An early leader of the US settlement movement, he lead the migration from Dorchester to the US.  Outside the church, I looked at the Statue of William Barnes, a poet who inspired Thomas Hardy. Down the street, we explored the Maumbury Rings, Neolithic monuments from 2500 BC, later used as a Roman Amplitheater.  There is a hell of a lot of history from this city where my family resides, far more than I could have imagined.

“If you don’t know where you come from, how can you know who you are,” Malcolm X used to say. 

Thinking about Dorchester and its history or Roman migrations, civil wars, religious persecutions, writers, and poets, I see more and more.

Thomas Hardy’s words would linger as made our way to Falmouth.

"Where we are huddled none can trace,
   And if our names remain,
They pave some path or p-ing place
   Where we have never lain!

"There's not a modest maiden elf
   But dreads the final Trumpet,
Lest half of her should rise herself,
   And half some local strumpet!

"From restorations of Thy fane,
   From smoothings of Thy sward,
From zealous Churchmen's pick and plane
   Deliver us O Lord! Amen!"

We stop at a small pub just outside of Exeter for lunch, where we talk about our spirit animals, giraffes, otters, a Dutch billed platypus, number one a foal.                         

We drove all afternoon, South through Cornwall, to Falmouth, where we’d join Rob, the third of my best men from my wedding for a few days of hanging out, enjoying the countryside.

“I like London,” noted number three.  "But Dorchester started to get interesting."

Well, you’ll really like the countryside down here.  It’s like middle earth.  I imagine Tolkein was thinking of this space in Cornwall as he wrote, lush trees on the water.  Every time I get there I think of Carmel California.

  “Its kindov like San Juan,” noted number one, looking around at the palm trees along the water, near the Falmouth Hotel, where we were staying.

Rob joined us as we pulled up to the hotel, walking through the rain from his home in the town center.  He’s been in Falmouth for three years now, teaching literature and creative writing.  The girls all ran down to go swimming and we all sat to catch up, gossiping, talking about writing, our projects, and respective university gigs. I am still in awe that the both of us ended up in Universities, after all those years of psychology, slacking, San Francisco, Los Angeles, the dessert, Chicago, and zillions of trips in between.  Rob visited me in Dallas the summer after Freshman year in college, making friends with Essie, who cleaned the place.  He got her to make him an omlet. What a rascal. That’s what I love about him.

“What should I read now to get inspired to write my new novel?” I asked, all of us sitting in our hotel room, overlooking a stormy night on the Atlantic ocean.  Gale force winds blowing past.
  “Check out Michel Houellebecq’s Whatever,” Rob counseled, rattling off a list of books including Tropic of Capricorn or anything by Marilyn Robinson.

So we talked about writing and romance, stories and their lingering relationship to reality.

“Don’t ever marry a poet,” counseled number two, listening to the conversation. “They are going to write about the breakup. They might even plan the relationship around the breakup, preordaining it.” We didn’t know if she was talking about poets in general or Rob or myself.  We’ve all had our ups and downs with relationships and the hot and cold feelings which accompany them.
Number two and Rob discussing the nature of heartbreak and poetry at the Front in Falmouth.
Photo by Caroline Shepard

“Do you feel like you just want to run?” Rob once asked, after I had a friend drop by to visit during grad school in Chicago.  “You have everything and you can’t feel a thing.”

It’s a lingering Groucho Marx joke of a relationship feeling, one that’s part of a conversation we’ve shared for decades, in between the peaks of photos of sticky mags in college in the dorm rooms, ruminating on the ways we fall in love, and then regret it, but the feeling still lingers, along the with memory, the smell. And now we write and share stories. 

“Up the anti on the protagonist,” he advised, as we talked about my new book and the stories we love.  “You read assuming the position, the story about the hustler?” 

“I loved it.”

“That’s another amazing model.”

“Somewhere between Death in Venice and the Rachel Papers,” I mused, reflecting on the title.

“It’s a space for self-emulation through sex.”

“Killing yourself on the way to find that authentic feeling.”

“But sometimes its addiction or compulsion or self-destruction, often less than pure or loyal.”

“There is that Lancelot feeling, where he betrayed his absolute best friend, King Arthur, for his wife, for her love.”

  “it’s a story repeated and repeated.”

The stories are everywhere here.
We move through our moods as we wander through the pubs of Falmouth, ruminating on careers, ups downs, the time we drank Absinthe in Prague before I had to present at eight AM the next day, and the ways it all expands through an ever flowing story.   We talked and walked late into the night.

The next day, the sun shone through our window, gale force winds and rain nowhere to be seen.

So we meandered up and down the seashore, playing with shells, looking at the creatures in the low tide.  Number one and I wondered where it was all going.  She skipped over stones, the water chilling, still walking as we used to walk through the tide pools in Laguna Beach, a decade prior when I was first teaching in Los Angeles.  We explored the Pendennis Castle, looking out at the sea.

  “This really looks like San Juan,” I mused, looking out at the old fort overlooking the ocean.

Afternoon, quickly turned to early evening.  We sat at the Front, my favorite pub in Falmouth, looking at the ships docking, the seagulls chirping overhead.  The kids played jingus and drew doodles in my pad.  Friends from all over town were there.  Some of Leah’s buddies from Bristol and Rob's from school and around town.  We talked about friendship and literature, horsing around with the kids, who are now becoming teenagers.

  “To order a six pack, you have to ask like you know what you are doing,” Rob counseled number three.  “You look old enough, just cover your braces.”

  I’d been reading Rob’s first book The Gravedigger all break long.  Number three had been writing a story of the same title.  She hadn’t known there was a novel of the same title.  So I showed it to her, in an eerie moment of synchronicity.

We talked and talked and talked through the night and the next day.  We’d make our way out early for Tintagel Castle, two hours north.  The gale force winds and rain were back, swirling through the day.  Driving two lane roads, cars swirling at us, one big wreck, a few near misses. 

Arriving at the town, along the Atlantic Coastline, the surf swirling below, a blackbird seemed to greet us, dancing with the car.  We wandered down a windy walking path to the castle where Arthur’s legend was said to emerge.  There is no real recorded history of this space in between the fall of Rome and the Norman Conquest of 1066.  And now there were nothing but ruins of what had once been a castle. The night before, we’d talked about that odd place in between history and myth.  The whirling winds, water crashing on the rocks by Merlin’s cave, it all seemed to point to a place in between this world and another.  This really felt like a place where Merlin could disappear, after conjuring up dark magic to transform Uther Pendragon.

“I am so glad we came here,” noted number one and two, smiling in the rain, looking out at the ocean, the winds practically blowing us off the cliff.

“You feel the magic, right?” I chimed in, walking through the cave along the seashore.

Driving away, I read to Caroline from Geoffrey Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain, his twelfth century study of time time.

The day of mysteries only continued as we strolled through Stonehenge later in the afternoon, wondering why people dragged the stones from Wales to this site, where the dead where celebrated along with the living in rituals which still lure thousands and thousands to this unknown space between the modern world and the unknown.

There are just places where we do not know enough.  And this is one of those spaces.  In between, stories fill the void, helping us make sense of it all.

“I can’t even imagine what it was like to live four thousand years ago,” noted number one in the rain, looking at the stones in awe.

In Ireland, the tour guides just told us the ferries created similar mounds and stone structures.  In England, the druids are sometimes given credit.  

But there is far more to this history, predating Greece and Rome and recorded time. Yet, there were people here and they seemed to celebrate the solstice, in a communion between the living and the dead, the end of one season and the beginning of another.

And so our journey ended.  We ate a final diner in Salibury and made our way to Heathrow the next morning.

Stories are everywhere here.  I pick them up on the sidewalks, the streets, when the seagulls pass, the boats look out at the docks, with workers from unknown origins locked below. They are part of the blurry line between modern recorded history and the legends we traced from Tintagel to Stonehenge, between my Dad’s musings about our family origins and church records in Midway Church in Georgia. The stories are everywhere here. 

We got to the airport early.  So Number three and I sat at the bookstore looking at old paperbacks. Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning sat looking at me.  A black and white paperback of a British hiker, who’d walked to London and then Spain, the story called to me, reminding me of my walks, our family walks through the paths from Joshua Tree National Park in the dessert, through the Appalachian Trails near Grandpa Al’s in Garrison, through the French Way from Pamploma to Santiago in Spain, and this summer’s journey through the Franciscan Way from Florence to Rome.  The way opens a lens on reality.  Similar to the bike path, it’s a way to see the treasures and tragedies, the lessons and wonder of the path we all take between family stories and our own adventures, when we walk through our own paths of our lives.  

On the way to the plane, I saw Matteo had sent me a poem.  He said it might remind us of him, in between vanity and a warm place where its ok to be lost, that’s a good place to embrace.
Caroline took some amazing photos of our trip.  A few are included here. The poem and photo essay of the trip follows.

Gale force winds at Tintagel Castle and other adventures and photos by Caroline Shepard

Matteo sent me this poem as we were leaving:

The Discoveries of Geography

Andrew Motion

If only the stories were not so tempting –
but from day one I started to embroider,
and in no time was suggesting a country
far to the North
where fish are as large as dragons,
and even minor administrators
eat off gold plates,
and sleep on gold beds.
That is why I have packed in my birch canoe
a robe
made of the feathers
of more than 100 different species of bird.
So that when I have finally crossed the Ocean
I will have a ceremonial costume
rich enough
to impress in my encounter with the Great Khan.
We have an excellent long boat with outriggers
and therefore travel dozens of miles in a day.
Furthermore, and speaking as a navigator,
I can predict every fickleness of weather
and also the change in direction of currents,
sometimes dipping my elbow into the water
and sometimes my scrotum
to feel the slightest change in temperature.
These are the reasons I shall die in peace
and be considered a saviour by my people.
In my own mind I am a simple man
who threw his spear at the stars
and landed there himself.
I have in my possession a map:
two handfuls of mud
scraped from the bank of our sacred river,
flattened into a tablet,
then pierced with the blunt point of my compass
while I spun the other sharper leg
to produce the edge of the world as I knew it,
and beyond
the salt sea on which I am now perfectly at home.
In this way I look down at myself.
I think: I am here.
Astonishing, how many horizons are open to me:
at one time mountainous heaps of smashed slate,
at others a vast delta of green and crimson light.
And every day a different shoreline ripples past
bearing its cargo of white sand and dark palms.
Very beguiling they appear, but all encumbered.
All spoiled by the tantrums of their local gods.
Out here there are storms too,
but in the religion I have now devised for myself,
I am convinced
the shaping hands have pulled away from us at last,
so the earth hangs with no support at the centre of –
That is the question I have in mind to answer.
You might suppose better charts would help me,
but despite their much greater accuracy
in terms of coastlines and interiors,
and the intricate detail
guaranteed by developments in printing,
not to mention the understanding of perspective,
empires still lie about their extent and stability.
These are the simple deceptions.
More difficult,
as I continue north to my final encounter,
and wave-crests flicking my face grow colder
and daylight a more persistently dull dove-grey,
is how to manage my desire to live in the present
for all eternity,
as though I had never left my home.
It transpires the last part of my journey
requires me to abandon everything I once knew,
even the gorgeous costume
made of the feathers of more than 100 different species of bird.
No matter, though.
It is delicious among the constellations,
as the planets begin to display their gas clouds
and the beautiful nebulae their first attempts at stars,
When I look over my shoulder
to see my own blue eye staring back at me,
I realise before I disappear
I still appreciate what it means to be lost.

Stories and adventures from London to Stonehenge.

Last meal in UK.  Go Go Sushi. Thank goodness not pub food.