Tag Archives: John Berger

Cairn by Kathleen Jamie

I knew before I saw a copy in Waterstones, Piccadilly, that I would love this book. I had already found Kathleen Jamie ‘s previous books, Sightlines and Surfacing, absorbing, thoughtful, full of engaging observations, mostly in poetic form. Some of the pleasure came from her archaeological excursions.

The cover is beautiful.

The book is lovingly produced with clean paper, pencil illustrations, nice print.

I was in London for the weekend immediately following the election, ready to celebrate and ready for new ideas.

Cairn

A cairn is a pile of stones, usually small stones, usually created by people as they pass: ‘rough old assemblages, decades of stones heaped on stones!’ We see many cairns on Dartmoor, some even raising the height of a tor. 

The title beautifully indicates the nature of the contents of this short volume. It is made up of short pieces, rarely more than two pages, most only one, being descriptions of small moments, observations and reflections on these moments, and many considered through the passing of time. (Just like pebbles). The publisher calls them micro essays, but ‘micro essay’ seems to me to be too modern an idea, or at least too modern a term for these short pieces.

In the prologue she reflects on how, reaching 60, ageing affects how she sees things, thinks about things, about herself, her life.

My younger self wrote her earnest poems, and scampered through her thirtieth year. Sixty was different. Now there are more certainties. I can still look out at the sea alright, by night or day, but now, the shape of my life’s arc is becoming visible, as it were. It is no longer below the horizon. Unless there is a sudden curtailment, I can sense the shape of my life pinned against the longer spans and cycles of the natural world I was born into. I can imagine the world going on without me, which one doesn’t at thirty. Or shouldn’t. (18)

Ageing includes seeing the world differently from how one’s children see it. She talks to active young people who do not know about Greenham Common, for example. The image of the stones, rounded by years, centuries, aeons of time reflects the epigraph from John Berger: ‘Stone propose another sense of time …’

Perhaps that is why the arrangement of stones in Kettrle’s Yard, Cambridge is so moving.

Kettle’s Yard, July 2023

She muses on the uncertain future of the planet, her fears for it, as humans are so careless with it.  

Short pieces, usually of beautiful observations of the natural world, but also of people working together to preserve it (eg demos), looking at how aging changes observations, and how she fears for the future of the planet.

We are everywhere surrounded by those down-curves out of abundance into scarcity, even into extinction. (61)

The fears are for the world, but also for her children and the generations to come. 

Kathleen Jamie gives us some poems too. In 2021 she was appointed Makar, the Scottish national poet. I read her work because she keeps me focused on the wonders of our world. Was it because I had read this volume over the weekend that I noticed what raindrops on the trees when I took the dog into the forest this morning for her walk?

Holden Forest, Devon. July 2024

These poems and short prose pieces, complemented a weekend spent with friends, with art (Now You See Us, Women Artists in Britain 1520 – 1920 at the Tate), and with music (Schubert Quintet performed by the Esmé Quartet at the Wigmore on Sunday morning). Culture, nature, community. The last line of the shape poem Cairn is 

We are more than the sum of our parts. (131)

And as it is with stones, and people, so it is with words.

… a word is not a single and separate entity; it is part of other words. Indeed it is not a word until it is part of a sentence. Words belong to each other … [Virginia Woolf in a BBC radio broadcast in 1937: On Craftsmanship]

And the last words of the epilogue

A raven glides past, giving you the eye.
Huh, she croaks, you. (136)

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie (October 2019)

Cairn by Kathleen Jamie, published in 2024 by Sort of Books. Pencil illustrations by Miek Zwamborn. 139pp

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, illustrations, poetry, Reading, Virginia Woolf, Writing

When reading leads to action

When I read Refugee Tales III I had a strong reaction: I cried a lot, and then I got angry and then I decided to do something. What I decided to do was to raise £400 to support GDWG in their work challenging the policy that allows detention and supporting detainees. I also decided to take part in the weekend events in early July in support of Refugee Tales.

Back in June I blogged about Refugee Tales III. This is the third volume of stories told by refugees and asylum seekers about their experiences in the UK. This volume focuses on those who have been held in indefinite detention. Since 2015 the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group (GDWG) have been making an annual walk and as they walk they tell their stories in the manner of the Canterbury Tales. These are collected and published, some refugees tell their own stories, some are retold by accomplished writers. 

My 25 bridges challenge

Over four weeks I crossed 25 different bridges in Devon. I was supported by other walkers, including my dog. Often I wore the distinctive and rather lovely blue T Shirt. I exceeded my target, thanks to the generosity of donors, raising £500 (+£75 Gift Aid) from 21 supporters.

The 25th Bridge

During a weekend of on-line activities I heard first-hand accounts of the experience of detention, some stories retold by writers, and you can find some of these on the Refugee Tales You Tube channel. I was especially moved by Ali Smith’s short piece Azure. (I think it was by her, but the programme is no longer on the website). I cried again, got angry again and then I decided to do more.

Words into action

So what now? 

It may have been Aristotle or Gunter Grass, but I like to repeat this phrase:

It’s the duty of the citizen to keep his [sic] mouth open.

It guides my further actions.

Read

I have two books that I want to follow up with: No Friend but the Mountains: writing from Manus Prison by Behrouz Boochani, translated from the Farsi by Omid Tofighani. Behrouz Boochani is a Kurdish-Iranian journalist, who was detained from 2013 – 2017 on Manus Island by the Australian government when he claimed asylum. This book describes what happened to the detainees on the island. The translator recommended the combination of poetry and prose used by Boochani. I am interested in his ideas about literature and all arts as tools for political resistance which he mentioned in the on-line event.. 

The other book also looks interesting, recommended by a friend: No Borders: the politics of immigration control and resistance by Natasha King. A discussion of the possibilities and challenges of a world without borders appeals to me greatly.

  • Donate more to Refugee Tales and GDWG
  • Speak about this topic to my friends
  • Write to my MP (again) on the subject
  • Imagine immigration without indefinite detention as encouraged by Refugee Tales
  • Join in further action: the Refugee Tales walk in 2021 is scheduled for 2-7th July. Perhaps I can walk alongside supporters rather than just sharing an on-line experience.
  • Share the stories.

Ali Smith is the patron of Refugee Tales, and on the web-site (link below) she reports the wisdom of John Berger. He was responding to a question about what we can do about the movement of peoples and the reactions of countries to this.

The telling of stories is an act of profound hospitality. It always has been; story is an ancient form of generosity, an ancient form that will tell us everything we need to know about the contemporary world. Story has always been a welcoming-in, is always one way or another a hospitable meeting of the needs of others, and a porous artform where sympathy and empathy are only the beginning of things. The individual selves we all are meet and transform in the telling into something open and communal.

I like the idea of story-telling as hospitality and that we meet to become more open and communal. 

And what can you do?

You can still donate to the Just Giving page here:

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/caro-lodge

Anything from £1 to £100 will be welcome towards my target of £400

Other connected pages to read:

Refugee Tales III, Eds: David Herd & Anna Pincus (2019), published by Comma Press. 201pp. This is the post from June 2020

Refugee TalesEds: David Herd & Anna Pincus: a post in February 2017 on Bookword about the first collection of tales. I was raising money for Freedom from Torture at the time.

Refugee Tales 2, Eds: David Herd & Anna Pincus: a post in April 2018 on Bookword about the second collection. 

Refugee Tales

Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group

Any suggestions for further reading?

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Learning, Reading, Writing and Walking