Goodbye to all that

 

From rankflags.com

 

Brexit is underway.  As far as the UK and the EU are concerned, it’s goodbye and good night.

 

Earlier this week Theresa May sent a letter to Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, to notify him “in accordance with Article 50 (2) of the Treaty on European Union of the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the European Union.”  The same day, in the Guardian, the political journalist Rafael Behr likened the impossibility of reversing Brexit to the impossibility of restoring an omelette to the eggs it’d been made from.  Gloomily, he added: “Those of us who wished Britain could remain in the EU must understand the cultural magnitude of our defeat…  The shell of Britain’s EU membership is broken.  Let there be no more talk of remain.”

 

I’ve already written on this blog that I regard Brexit as lunacy so I won’t repeat myself now.  I’d prefer to write about something else – something that occurred to me when I read the headlines about Brexit being activated.  I remembered the first time I ever left the British-Irish Isles and entered a non-English-speaking country.  That was thanks to the European Economic Community (EEC), which became later the European Community (EC) and then the European Union (EU) we know today.

 

In the spring of 1982 I was about to finish high school and I’d resolved to take a year out before I went to college.  No one else in my school-year intended to do this.  Those with plans to go to college were doing so a few months later in the early autumn.  And everybody around me, especially my parents, seemed to believe I was mad for postponing entry into college by a year-and-a-third so that I could do absurd things like…  Well, what exactly was I going to do?  I had vague dreams of travelling and seeing something of the world, and of funding this travel by doing short jobs here and there, hopefully abroad.  But as the end of high school neared, my year-out plans remained worryingly nebulous.

 

(Incidentally, in 2017, it seems you’re considered mad if between school and college you don’t take a year out, or a gap year as it’s called in modern parlance.  Indeed, employers expect to see it on graduates’ CVs as an indication of boldness and initiative.  I was just 35 years ahead of my time but didn’t know it.)

 

Eventually, I went and tormented my school’s careers advisor for ideas and she suggested a programme I could try for part of my year out.  The EEC was funding young people in its member countries to visit other EEC countries and conduct short projects about some aspect of life in them.  The hope was that this would give young people a better understanding of their EEC neighbours and thus create better, more empathetic EEC citizens.  All you had to do was complete and send off an application form, which if accepted got you a grant of about £250.  Then you made your own travel and accommodation arrangements, headed for the EEC country of your choice, did your research, wrote a report and submitted it a few months later.

 

I decided to go to France, because apart from the Republic of Ireland it was the closest EEC country to the UK and hence the cheapest one to get to.  Also, I’d studied French for six years at school and shouldn’t have too many communication problems – so I thought.

 

For my French base, I decided to use the town of Soissons, about 100 kilometres northeast of Paris.  This was because my high school in Scotland ran a student-exchange programme with a school in Soissons, some of my teachers kept in touch with the teachers there, and I’d heard that the Soissons school had rooms on its campus that could be temporarily rented out.  So I asked the head of my school’s French Department if he could drop one of his Soissons counterparts a line and arrange something on my behalf.

 

From ccvilleneuve.fr

 

I wondered if anything would actually come of this.  But in May 1982, I received a letter from a Soissons teacher called Monsieur Masson confirming that he’d booked me a room for me for three weeks the following month.

 

And what would my project be about?  I didn’t know what career I wanted to follow, but if people asked me I usually told them I intended to be a journalist – as I read a lot of newspapers and liked writing.  I suppose it was this journalistic predilection that made me propose going to France, doing research into French newspapers and investigating how they covered the big stories that were affecting Britain at the time.  How different would the French perspective on such stories be from the British one?

 

(I have to confess that half-a-year later, after I’d been in France, carried out the research and typed up and sent off the report, I was in Waverley Station in Edinburgh one day when I saw a newsstand with newspapers on sale from other countries.  Among them were most of the French newspapers I’d consulted for my project, like Le Monde and Le Figaro.  I hadn’t known they were sold in places like Waverley Station, where lots of foreigners passed through.  And I realised guiltily that I could have stayed in Scotland and done the exact same project by buying those French newspapers in Edinburgh.  Thankfully, the EEC never cottoned onto this and never demanded their £250 back…  With the Internet, of course, you could do the whole project nowadays without ever leaving your house.)

 

(c) Le Monde

 

I set off for France at the start of June.  I was 16 at the time, unused to travelling, ignorant of foreign cultures and generally utterly naïve.  The experience that followed was so intense that I really only remember certain moments of it where my impressions were either strongly positive or negative.  Here, I’ll describe the bad stuff first and then relate the good stuff.

 

I didn’t enjoy the journey.  I’d booked seats on the night-train from Edinburgh to London – as well as being my first time in continental Europe, this was also my first time on a train and my first time to travel to London – and then on a coach service that ran from Bedford Square in central London to the Gare du Nord in Paris, with the cross-channel part of the trip being made by hovercraft.  Needless to say, this was my first time in a hovercraft too.

 

When I got off the train at six o’clock in the morning at King’s Cross Station in London, I immediately decided that the station (and by extension, London itself) was bloody horrible.  I realise today King’s Cross Station has been done up and is a site of pilgrimage for young foreign tourists who worship the Harry Potter books and want to see Platform 9½ where Harry, Hermione and Ron would board the Hogwarts Express.  But back then the station was shabby, dank and disreputable.  It was populated by vagrants, most of whom were pissed even though it was six a.m. and most of whom, disconcertingly, seemed to be Scottish.

 

My opinion of King’s Cross Station didn’t improve three weeks later when, during the journey home, I traipsed through one of its entrance doors and a pair of skinheads promptly ordered me to shut the door behind me.  Tired and not thinking properly, I assumed they were employed by the station and did as they said.  I turned around and spent a minute trying to get the door to shut, until I realised it was an automatic one and wouldn’t shut until I stepped off its pressure sensor or moved out of the way of its motion sensor.  Then those skinheads guffawed and ran off.

 

The Gare du Nord in Paris, from which I planned to get a train to Soissons, was a lot less grungy.  But it was here that I made a shocking and embarrassing discovery.  I couldn’t speak French.  At least I couldn’t speak real-world French, as opposed to classroom French.  With hindsight, all I had to say to the lady in the ticket booth was “Soissons s’il vous plait.  Aller simple.”  But I tried to word my request as a sentence – “I’d like to buy a…” – and it came out as gibberish.  Then I didn’t understand what the lady asked me in reply.  Finally, after a nightmarish minute of miscommunication whose memory still haunts me to this day, and while a queue of impatient rush-hour travellers lengthened behind me, she managed to identify the name ‘Soissons’ amid my gibberish and gave me the necessary ticket.

 

From histoiredecinema.canalblog.com

 

It was nearly dark when I arrived in Soissons.  By the time I got to the lycée Monsieur Masson had long since gone home and I had to deal with a bemused caretaker.  He found me a room where I could spend the night, although it hadn’t been inhabited for a long time and was full of cardboard boxes, dust and stale-smelling air.  I lay on the bed wondering if this grim place would be my abode for the next three weeks.  (It wouldn’t, of course.  When the administrative staff came in the next morning, they saw to it that I was put in a different room, a clean one that even had a balcony and a view.)

 

Despite it being June, I was wearing a bulky coat – it had loads of pockets, handy for carrying things in.  I recalled that my grandmother had given me a giant bar of Dairy Milk chocolate to eat during the journey.  I hadn’t had dinner that evening but at least in my fusty room I could snack on that.  I stuck my hand into a pocket to retrieve the bar and discovered it’d dissolved, messily, thanks to the intense body heat I’d exuded all day inside that unseasonably heavy coat.  Then on the back of my coat I noticed some big brown smears.  How on earth had the molten chocolate leaked out there?  It wasn’t until I noticed the odour coming off those smears that I realised they were dog-shit.  At some point, I’d accidentally set my rucksack down on some pavement-poo.  Then, when I’d hoisted the rucksack onto my back again, I’d transferred the poo to my coat.

 

But thinking about it now, I see how most of the bad moments related to getting to Soissons.  When I was in Soissons, however, the good moments began to happen.

 

Firstly, it soon dawned on me how kind and helpful people were, even if my communication skills were so woeful that I must have appeared as a gurning, inarticulate man-child.  Particularly hospitable was my contact in the teaching staff, Monsieur Masson, who with his stylish clothes and immaculately trimmed beard reminded me of the French actor Michael Lonsdale when he’d played Hugo Drax in the 1980 Bond movie Moonraker.   As well as checking up on me regularly to ensure I was okay, he and his family invited me to have dinner and stay at their charming Soissons home the night before I returned to Scotland.  Thankfully, there was enough of my £250 left for me to buy him a bottle of Scotch whisky as a thank-you gift.  (To my surprise, he immediately drank a small measure of it out of a glass stuffed with ice cubes.  What, I thought, you can drink whisky with ice cubes?  Nobody I knew in Scotland did this.  They just drank it neat or with tepid tap-water.  And kept drinking it.  Until they fell over.)

 

From seriouseats.com

 

Then there was the pleasure of discovering a place very different from what I was used to.  I’d wander through residential areas with modern blocks of flats that were colourfully painted and had flowers growing out of pots and window-boxes.  Where I came from, blocks of flats were associated with failed 1960s planning, grey concrete, urban deprivation and vandalism.  Most of the shops were no larger than those in my home town but they looked unfeasibly smart and chic.  As part of my arrangement with the lycée, I got breakfast and dinner there every day and I also discovered the French dining experience.  Breakfast wasn’t about stuffing yourself with bales of Weetabix and fried egg and bacon – it was a simple but delicious ritual of dunking pieces of fresh baguette into a bowlful of coffee.  Dinner didn’t come with everything piled haphazardly on one plate but as a series of little courses – hors d’oeuvres, fish, meat and veg, salad, desert.  Bewildering but somehow very civilised.

 

It was also strange seeing cultural items you were familiar with through a French prism.  I spent ages in Soissons’ bookshops, wanting to find out which of my favourite novels had been translated into French and what their French titles were.  I went to the cinema one evening to watch Costa Gavras’s newly-released political thriller Missing, starring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek and set in Chile after the Pinochet coup of 1973.  It was dubbed into French, but by this time my French-comprehension powers had improved and I understood about half of it.  What puzzled me was why the French had decided to give Costa Gavras’s glum, serious movie a Woody Woodpecker cartoon as its supporting feature.  Also, they showed the trailer for Mad Max II, with the consequence that even today when I watch that Mel Gibson post-apocalyptic action-classic, I hear a solemn French voice intoning, “Mad MaxDeux!”

 

© PolyGram Filmed Entertainment / Universal

© Kennedy Miller Productions / Warner Bros

 

I was unhappy with the report that I finally submitted.  It seemed crude and slipshod and not remotely how I’d envisioned it being.  But its topic was a great one to be focused on during a sojourn in a foreign country.  Studying how the French press depicted Britain was an eye-opener.  As Robert Burns wrote wisely in his poem To a Louse: “To see oursel’s as ithers see us / It wad frae mony a blunder free us…

 

One story I covered in the French newspapers was Pope John-Paul II’s visit to Britain, which happened while I was in France.  It was the first time a reigning pope had ever been on British soil and the visit had sparked protests by such predictable figures as the Reverend Ian Paisley and his Glaswegian Mini-Me, Pastor Jack Glass.  Although John-Paul II was a socially conservative pope and France seemed a very liberal Catholic country, French commentators were surprised and upset that anyone in Britain could object to his presence.  Not very scientifically (or geographically), one writer in Le Figaro explained it thus: “In the north of England, they still believe in ghosts.”

 

(c) Le Figaro

 

However, the biggest British news-item during my three weeks in Soissons was a war.  Britain was fighting Argentina over possession of the Falklands Islands.  Coming from Britain, where the Falklands War had sent most of the newspapers into a bellicose, jingoistic frenzy, the detachment and scepticism on display in the French press were discombobulating.  Many French commentators – even in Le Figaro, which was supposed to be conservative – seemed to echo the famous remark by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges that the conflict  was like “two bald men fighting over a comb.”  Meanwhile, a grotesque cartoon in the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné that depicted a naked Margaret Thatcher making love to a missile and wailing, “C’est bon!  C’est bon!” has been etched on my memory ever since.

 

Thus, it was a project about newspapers that first allowed me to leave Britain and start exploring the rest of Europe.  During the rest of my year out, I would build on that experience.  By the time I got to college in the autumn of 1983, I’d been in Switzerland, Germany, Liechtenstein, Austria, Belgium and Holland too.

 

Ironically, newspapers have now been instrumental in building barriers between Britain and the rest of Europe.  The British newspapers owned by a quintet of right-wing millionaire / billionaire magnates, i.e. Rupert Murdoch, Lord Rothermere, Richard Desmond and the two Barclay Brothers, did much to create the hysterical, xenophobic atmosphere that led to a small majority of the British public voting for Brexit last year.

 

I find it sad to think that the EU, in its old EEC incarnation, gave me my first opportunity to really travel during my teens.  Because of Brexit, opportunities like that will no doubt be reduced for young Britons in the future.  75% of British voters in the 18-to-24 age group voted to stay in the EU but soon they will find it harder to study in Europe, work in Europe and – if visas are reintroduced – even move around in Europe.  The Brexit vote, largely the responsibility of an older and more reactionary electorate, has put a damper on such aspirations.

 

Back in 1982, I didn’t know how lucky I was.

 

Glorious international foodstuffs 2: ramen

 

From imgur.com

 

Japan is a land of many pleasures.  It has cultural pleasures (ukiyo-e, rakugo, ikebana), literary pleasures (Edogawa Ranpo, Osamu Dazai, Haruki Murakami), alcoholic pleasures (sake, shochu, Sapporo Beer) and musical pleasures (Ryuichi Sakamoto, Shonen Knife and, obviously, the Mad Capsule Markets).  However, for pure, visceral, immediate-gratification pleasure, nothing can compare to the bowlful of joy you get when you venture into a certain type of Japanese eatery at lunchtime, after a morning of hard graft and when your stomach is yowling with hunger, and a steaming helping of ramen is set on the counter in front of you.

 

Ramen is hardly an elegant dish.  It’s rough-and-ready and thrown-together but none the worse for that.  In its basic form, it consists of a mess of noodles, a skoosh of broth, a few cuts of pork, a boiled egg, some spring onions and bean sprouts and a nice, green, papery square of nori (seaweed), all chucked into a big bowl.  And strictly speaking, it’s not a Japanese dish either.  The first ramen in Japan probably appeared in Chinese restaurants that served food from Shanghai and Canton in the 19th century.  Indeed, up until the middle of the 20th century, it was referred to as ‘shina soba’, i.e. Chinese soba.   And it didn’t achieve mass-popularity in Japan until the late fifties with the invention of instant noodles.  At that moment, ramen stopped being a special treat and became affordable daily fare for the average working Joe.

 

Despite being a relatively late cultural import to the country, ramen is now synonymous with Japanese cuisine and culture.  By 1985, it’d become iconic enough for a Japanese filmmaker to make a movie about it.  This was Juzo Itami’s comedy-classic Tampopo, which was marketed as a ‘ramen western’ – a joke on spaghetti westerns, although in Japan spaghetti westerns are called ‘macaroni westerns’.  To be honest, Tampopo is more about Japan’s overall relationship with food and its most memorable sequence doesn’t involve ramen all – we see a gangster and his moll have culinary simulated sex by popping a raw egg-white-and-yolk back and forth from, and in and out of, their mouths.  (I remember sticking the video for Tampopo into the VCR in my family’s living room one evening, expecting to watch an innocuous Japanese comedy; and feeling mortified when this scene appeared because my eighty-something Northern Irish granny was sitting knitting in the corner.  But thankfully, the eighty-something Northern Irish granny thought it was hilarious.)

 

©Itami Productions / New Century Producers / Toho

 

Tampopo’s main plotline follows the old western formula wherein a gang of gunslingers ride to the rescue of a besieged town – only here, it’s a gang of ramen-lovers hurrying to the rescue of an ailing ramen-ya.  A ramen-ya is a fixture of Japan’s backstreets, a little restaurant that serves ramen, portions of rice, side-plates of gyoza dumplings, beer, liquor and not much else.  When I lived in Japan, which was for most of the 1990s, it seemed that everyone I knew had a favourite ramen-ya that they’d discovered somewhere in their local neighbourhoods.

 

As for me, I swore by a particular ramen-ya that was in the town of Takikawa, up on the northern island of Hokkaido, where I spent my first two years in Japan working as a classroom assistant.  This ramen-ya was called the Manten and was as typical as you could get: a long narrow chamber with a counter and row of stools on one side and, at its far end, a small tatami room where a few months after my arrival, I recall, a hard-living Glaswegian guy I’d encountered introduced me to the seductive but hazardous pastime of drinking shochu.  (Unlike sake, which is fermented, shochu is a distilled Japanese liquor.)

 

The Manten had a window looking out onto a little compound or back garden where, when it wasn’t under a half-dozen feet of snow – Hokkaido has a climate akin to Siberia’s – I’d see the place’s owner wielding a golf club and practising his swings.  But what anchors the Manten in my memory most of all was its ramen, which I found delicious.

 

The Manten didn’t just acquaint me with ramen.  It acquainted me with the Hokkaido versions of it.  There are various types of ramen, such as shoyu (soy-sauce) and shio (salt) ramen, but up in Hokkaido they like miso ramen.  As its name suggests, its broth is thick and liberally laced with miso and it’s perfect for insulating you against the raw Hokkaido winter.  (The island is also the home of another variation of the dish, the self-explanatory curry ramen.  Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the Japanese archipelago, the island of Kyushu has pioneered a further variation, tonkotsu ramen, which has a distinctively whitish broth.)

 

Probably that’s why nowadays I rage when I find myself in a Japanese restaurant back in Britain, with what purports to be ramen on its menu, and I get served something whose broth is vapidly thin and watery.  No, you useless wimps, the soup in the ramen has got to be thick.  That’s the Hokkaido way.

 

One other good thing about ramen, in Japan anyway, is its price.  I could never get over how cheap the stuff was, considering there was usually enough in one bowl to leave me feeling stoked up with fuel for the next three days.  In fact, a friend who visited Japan in 2015 told me it was still cheap – especially compared with those trendy Japanese-restaurant chains in the UK where you pay twice the cost for a pale imitation.  (Yes, Wagamama, I’m looking at you.)

 

Accordingly, when you enter a ramen-ya at lunchtime, you’ll be greeted by the sight of Japan’s smaller earners – dusty construction workers, say, and lower-hierarchy salarymen – sitting along the counter and tucking into their midday ramen fix.  Often, after I’d eaten a bowlful, I’d feel ready to slouch home, lie down and sleep it off.  But for those guys, of course, an afternoon nap isn’t an option.  In ever-industrious Japan, you return to the building site or the office and spend the afternoon working it off.

 

They say that an army marches on its stomach.  For the blue-collar and lower white-collar army that keeps Japan’s economy (still the third-largest economy in the world) marching, that stomach is surely full of ramen.

 

©Itami Productions / New Century Producers / Toho

 

Technical hitch

 

From tvtropes.org

 

My apologies to anyone who’s tried to access this blog in the past week.  They would have encountered either a blank, basic WordPress template devoid of any of the 500+ entries I’ve put on Blood and Porridge since 2012; or a signing-in page from WordPress demanding user names, passwords, etc.  Thankfully, those good people in the technical support department at my web-hosting provider have managed to solve the problem and, not for the first time, have saved my blogging bacon.

 

Unfortunately, in the process, the most recent entries I’ve put on Blood and Porridge have been lost (and as some time has elapsed and they’re no longer topical, I see no point in reposting them).  However, the issue seems now to be sorted and normal blogging will resume shortly.

 

Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 9: Bambalapitiya Station

 

 

Colombo is being redeveloped at a frenzied rate these days.  Multi-storey hotels and apartment blocks seem to shoot up out of the ground with the suddenness and speed of mushrooms.  So many cranes loom over the downtown area that the horizon there resembles a pincushion.  And a grand, if not grandiose, reclamation project is forcing the sea back from the Fort district, banishing it behind giant dunes of sand and boulders.

 

With all this happening, it’s a surprise when you see the under-developed state of the city’s railway system, the antiquated and fusty railway stations in particular.

 

A typical example is Bambalapitiya Station, not far from where I live.  It’s one of three stations standing on Marine Drive, the city’s main coastal road.  A pair of railway lines run along a strip between the road and the sea’s edge, one carrying southbound trains heading in the direction of Galle, a few hours away down the coast, and the other carrying northbound trains for central Colombo.  Bambalapitya Station is roughly at the midpoint of Marine Drive.  There, the railway lines bulge apart and create between them a narrow, faintly elliptical space which the station building and platforms straggle along.  Past where the platforms stop, the two tapering ends of the space are covered in sand, rocks, rubble, litter, grass and weeds.

 

 

At peak travelling hours, Marine Drive is teeming with vehicles and to get people safely across the road to the station there’s a pedestrian bridge covered with corrugated-iron roofing of various unappealing shades of grey and brown.  The stairs at the end of the bridge descend into the station building itself, long and low and with walls that are a faded amber colour.  Corrugated-iron ‘awnings’ stick out on either side, over the middle parts of the platforms.  Their ends, though, are exposed to all weathers.

 

Plenty of people enter the station without using the bridge.  Its main part is separated from Marine Drive by a low wall and fence, but many folk stream off the road, around the wall and fence and onto the ends of the waste ground.  From there they clamber up onto the platforms; or more hazardously, they clamber up into the end-carriages of the trains, which when they’ve stopped usually protrude past the platforms.  The latter course-of-action can be even more of a struggle at peak hours when the carriage doors are already garlanded with the bodies of clinging, hanging-out passengers.

 

 

There’s a second, bigger wall standing behind the outer railway track, presumably to shield the tracks, trains, platforms, buildings and travellers from the spray and occasionally the waves of the sea just a few yards further away.   The wall is a mishmash of sections, rising to different heights and featuring different textures of brickwork and plasterwork.  It’s also become a canvas for Colombo graffiti-artists who’ve daubed it with hip-hoppy scrawls.

 

 

The most striking, and saddest, feature of Bambalapitiya Station is found behind that sea-wall.  Against its rear side, along the narrow rocky strip between it and where the ground drops to the sea, some poor Sri Lankan people have erected a line of huts and shacks.  Their walls have been patched together with wooden panels and planks and their roofs consist of tarpaulin and corrugated iron weighted down with rocks and discarded railway sleepers.  The boulders outside their doors are strewn with things that’ve no doubt been salvaged and scavenged: plastic chairs, plastic water containers, a bathtub, lengths of piping, shapeless chunks of scrap metal.  The hut at the northern end appears to function as a rudimentary shop / tearoom for there’s a hatchway in its sidewall with a makeshift table and stools arranged in front of it.

 

 

In 2011, the Sri Lankan Sunday Times newspaper published a feature about this ramshackle settlement.  It makes depressing and upsetting reading.  Its description of how the huts regularly get flooded with seawater correspond to what I’ve seen, from a distance, on stormy days when the waves climb the rocks and strike the huts with a violence that makes you fear they’ll be swept away.  At the time, local politicians stood accused of ignoring the plight of Bambalapitya Station’s backdoor residents; and from the look of things, they’ve done little or nothing to help them since then.

 

www.sundaytimes.lk/111023/Plus/plus_01.html

 

Well, there’s one thing that’s apparently changed since that newspaper feature six years ago.  At least some of the huts seem to have power now.  The evidence for this is the couple of poles sticking up above the sea-wall with TV aerials fastened to their tops.

 

 

Just after the final hut at the wall’s southern end, a blue-painted Christian shrine has been set up.  A glass-fronted box on its summit contains figures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.  It makes an atmospheric sight after six o’clock in the evening, while the silvery-gold sun dips towards the sea and a few long skinny clouds along the sky glow so redly that they look like bloody scratch-marks.

 

 

I should say that I’ve never ventured behind the railway’s station’s back wall and stuck my camera in anyone’s face.  I only wish other visitors to Colombo would be respectful too of the privacy of the people there.  On one occasion, I saw a big tour bus parked on Marine Drive beside the station and, on the far side of the railway tracks, some Chinese tourists crowded at the end of the shanty town and snapping pictures of it – treating it as a ‘poverty porn’ stop on their travel itinerary.

 

As for the roadside wall at the front of Bambilapitiya Station – or half-a-wall because part of it has disappeared and, as I’ve said, been replaced by a fence – somebody tried at some time to brighten it by painting a series of murals along it.  However, these last for only a few yards.  Their images – Buddha, stupas, rivers, forests, lotus flowers, demons, deer, elephants, fish, turtles, elephants, birds and butterflies – are pleasingly colourful, simple and child-like.

 

 

A mixture of rickety charm and some truly grim poverty, Bambalapitiya Station feels increasingly out of place in its neighbourhood.  It stands opposite the junction of Marine Drive and Station Road – a minute’s walk up the latter street is the trendy and popular Majestic City shopping centre.  And the opposite side of Marine Drive itself is currently in the throes of redevelopment.  One building, for instance, has been gutted and is being transformed into a new, high-falutin’ Indian restaurant with the amusing name of Planet Bollywood.

 

 

I suspect that before much longer some big, possibly Chinese-led consortium will flatten the old station and others like it and then raise new versions of them, fashioned in concrete, glass and steel.  Perhaps someone is on the case already.

 

Since writing this post I’ve noticed that the station’s front wall and the bottom half of its back wall have recently been given a lick of dark-red paint – the murals at the front have been spared, thankfully.  So clearly somebody in the Sri Lankan railway authorities is of the opinion that the place needs ‘doing up’.

 

The end of the road

 

© John Murray

 

A while ago I wrote about A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water.  These were the first two instalments in a trilogy of books describing a walking journey made across Europe in 1933 and 1934 by Patrick Leigh Fermor.

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=5008

 

Fermor was only in his late teens at the time.  Subsequently, he’d make a name for himself as a soldier, decorated war hero, author and scholar, although nowadays, six years after his death, I suspect he’s best known for being a possible inspiration for the character of James Bond, who was created by his friend Ian Fleming.  (Fleming was always meticulous about his research and he can’t have been too pleased when, following the publication of the 1963 Bond novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Fermor mischievously pointed out an error to him.  At one point in the book 007 orders a ‘half-bottle’ of Pol Roger champagne.  But, observed Fermor, Pol Roger is never sold in half-bottles.)

 

A Time of Gifts chronicled Fermor’s progress from Rotterdam to the Czechoslovakian / Hungarian border, while Between the Woods and the Water continued his journey through Hungary and Romania.  He published these two books decades later, the first volume appearing in 1977 and the second in 1986.  The Broken Road, an account of the final part of his epic hike, across Bulgaria to his ultimate destination Constantinople, was published posthumously in 2013.  Fermor didn’t live to complete the third book.  The finished item was based on a draft he’d written and was edited by the travel writer Colin Thubron and Fermor’s biographer Artemis Cooper.  They used information from one of his old diaries to fill in any gaps in the text and, presumably, they gave it a final polish too.

 

I read The Broken Road recently.  How does it compare with the previous two books?  And does the fact that it was still a work-in-progress in 2011, when the great man passed away, lessen its impact?

 

The simple and welcome answer is: hardly at all.  There’s one moment where Fermor’s demise leaves things noticeably unfinished, which I’ll come to later.  Otherwise, this is pleasingly on par with the tone and quality of A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water.  You may feel at times that a further edit could have tightened Fermor’s prose by trimming some of its floridity – but then you may feel that way with the earlier books too.  A verbose chap, Fermor didn’t subscribe to the Ernest Hemmingway less-is-more approach to writing.  Indeed, his garrulousness is part of the three books’ charm.

 

One way in which The Broken Road differs from predecessors is its darker tone.  Now in the late stages of his journey, Fermor refers to fatigue and jadedness.  He’s also in a place, Bulgaria, where he feels more alien and out-of-his-depth.  Occasionally, he becomes gloomy: “…the falling depression had been hammered home by the unbroken downpour, lashed into a spiteful anti-human fury by the unrelenting north-east wind that felt as though it was blowing without let or hindrance, as it probably was, direct from Siberia…”

 

He’s more aware now of encountering duplicity and hostility and things that make him feel uncomfortable as an outsider.  During inclement weather, cart-drivers refuse to give him lifts unless he pays money that he can’t spare.  One evening at a restaurant-bar he’s disturbed when the patrons explode into frenzied celebration at the news that King Alexander I of Yugoslavia has just been assassinated in Marseilles.  (“They’ve killed the Serbian king!  Today, in France!  And it was a Bulgar that did him in!”)  And there’s a perplexing moment when, for no apparent reason, a Bulgarian youth called Gatcho whom he’s befriended turns on him, screams abuse and threatens him with a knife.

 

Afterwards, a chastened Fermor wonders about “…how much of a nuisance I might have proved to countless people during the last year: had I been a perfect pest all across Central Europe?  A deep subsidiary gloom set in…”

 

From ghostofelberry.wordpress.com

 

Though it can’t have been fun at the time, I actually like seeing Fermor out of his comfort zone here.  This is because in the previous books there were times when I felt he had it too cushy, thanks to his privileged background, his wealthy contacts and the easy manner with which he ingratiates himself with those contacts.  As I wrote previously: “Gradually… Fermor falls in with a succession of aristocrats and moneyed folk.  Each of these gets in touch with relatives or friends further along his walking route and arranges for them to put him up.  So Fermor makes increasingly-frequent stops at big houses, where he dawdles among drawing rooms, libraries, servants, vintage motor cars, lavish family picnics and sumptuous evening balls…  Between the Woods and the Water, in particular, contains so many of these aristos that they start to blur into one another.”

 

In The Broken Road, Fermor even has to endure a common hazard for solitary, long-distance budget travellers – the loony who attaches himself to you.  (As someone who’s done a fair amount of travelling, I’ve had many loonies attach themselves to me.)  Here, it’s a misfit called Ivancho, “threadbare and urban and with a face like a hare’s,” who talks “at such a speed that I could scarcely understand a word – at the same time eager, confidential and ear-splitting, and without the faintest trace of punctuation, accompanied by many gestures and with a fixed smile and those hare’s eyes projecting and rolling, as though loose in their sockets.  It continued for mile after mile until my head began to swim and ache.”

 

The book isn’t all misery, of course.  Its pages are frequently brightened by moments of rhapsody, moments when the ever-curious Fermor is genuinely delighted by his discoveries.  For example, the whirlwinds of thistledown, sticks and rubbish that appear on the Dobruja steppe: “The plain was still alive with mirages; these four pillars careered across a sunset that the hanging mantle of dust refracted into a vast and tragic drama of orange and amber and blood red and violet…  There are tales of whole wagons being gathered up by these twisting demons, with sheep and buffaloes…”  Or the dream-like experience he has in the final chapter when he spends the night in a firelit cave by the Black Sea that “arched high overhead but did not go very deep into the cliff side” amid a mixed band of Greek fisherman and Bulgar shepherds.  They entertain themselves swigging from bottles of raki, playing music on goatskin bagpipes, gourd drums and Eastern European lutes, and dancing – first a slapstick all-male Turkish belly-dancing number and then some intriguing variations on Greek rebetiko.  The chapter is a tour de force of descriptive writing and provides the book, and the trilogy itself, with a fitting climax.

 

The cave sequence is the climax by default because a few pages later what you’d expect to be the real climax, Fermor’s long-awaited arrival in Constantinople, doesn’t materialise.  Rather, the text terminates in mid-sentence (“…and yet, in another sense, although”) and Fermor’s editors provide an apologetic note explaining that he never recorded the arrival in his draft or in his diary.  They speculate that “(p)erhaps the end of his journey was weighing on him with the traveller’s bewilderment of at last reaching his goal, and the uneasy question of his future.”

 

From Ouranoupoli.com

 

There’s compensation, however.  We get an 80-page epilogue wherein, post-Constantinople and early in 1935, Fermor describes a three-and-a-half-week sojourn on the Greek peninsular of Mount Athos, the ‘Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain’ that’s home to twenty Eastern Orthodox monasteries and that’s off-limits to women.  Indeed, Fermor observes, the peninsula’s off-limits to most things female: “for centuries, no mares, sheep, she-goats, sheep, cats, etc., have lived there, and all the flocks that I saw cropping what grass they could among the rocks, watched by a shepherd boy with a flute, were of rams and billy-goats.”  (Things have now been relaxed, apparently.  According to Wikipedia, “female cats, female insects and female songbirds” are allowed entry to modern-day Mount Athos.)

 

So after A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water and The Broken Road, I’ve spent about 800 pages in the company of the young Patrick Leigh Fermor during his trek across 1930s Europe.  Like with any travelling companion on a long and often arduous trip, there’ve been moments when I’ve felt irritated by him – by his poshness, his puppy-dog enthusiasm, his occasionally infuriating know-it-all-ness.  But at the same time, I feel I’ve formed a bond with the guy.  And now that the journey has reached its end, you know what?  I’m going to miss him.