Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A journey to Azerbaijan

Have you a moment for a story about Azerbaijan? If that suggestion sounds unlikely, particularly as I haven't been away, remember the many surprising aspects of London. Whilst each area is a village unto itself, by the same token you can travel a mile up the road and find yourself, quite unexpectedly, as far afield as Azerbaijan.
You're feeling a little doubtful? Well, listen to what happened to me!

I won't go into all the details (I don't think I fully follow them myself), sufficient to say that a friend of mine became involved in the public reading of an Azerbaijani play. The play was
being sponsored by The Embassy of The Republic of Azerbaijan who were generously providing the ornate costumes. A multi-national cast was participating, one of whom, I gathered was a trifle temperamental. The question my friend wanted to ask me was: should this temperamental performer fail to appear on the night, would I be willing to be sitting in the audience, a copy of the script in my bag, ready to leap to the rescue? It was vitally important, she told me, that the evening should be a success. Representatives of the Embassy would be present. The play was going on to Oxford, and then to Paris . . . a hitch of any kind was out of the question.

Not surprisingly, I was a little taken aback. There was no need to learn the part, my friend reassured me, and it was highly unlikely that my services would be needed.
In the face of this persuasive argument it seemed churlish to refuse. Hoping hard that I wouldn't regret the decision, I agreed.
I was given a script, together with an invitation, and a few nights later found myself - slightly apprehensive and very curious - clambering aboard a bus bound for Acton.

After some searching, I ended up in a large room on the second floor of an Arts Council building in Turnham Green. The room was dark and rather shabby, not that this seemed to worry the throng of highly-animated, smartly-dressed young people all speaking an unfamiliar language and eagerly filling the seats. The large flag draped above the platform was equally
unfamiliar. Had I really arrived here by bus from Notting Hill? It felt as though I had been whisked to the Caucasus on a flying carpet. Nothing in these surroundings spoke of the London I knew. Was I really the solitary European in a crowd of youthful Azerbaijanis?

Feeling highly conspicuous, I sat down and looked cautiously around. The front row of the audience was taken up by a group of powerful men with short-cropped hair and padded shoulders. They made me think of the KGB, but must have been the delegation from the Embassy.
Didn't they take their wives with them to cultural occasions? Apparently not.

The start of the play was delayed as it took some time for the happy chatter to die down. Then came a lengthy introduction. This was the first time that the Azerbaijani playwright, M.F. Akhundov, had had his work translated into English. It was, we were given to understand by both the director and the translator, an historic occasion. We were, they assured us, very fortunate to be there.

Whether or not I was fortunate wasn't to be made clear until after the cast had appeared on stage. I waited apprehensively.
At last, one by one, they filed into sight. Had the temperamental actress decided to come . . . ?
I gave a sigh of relief . . . she had!
Relaxing in my seat, I prepared to enjoy myself.

After two acts - given over to a convoluted plot that was a little free in its interpretation of the history of the Caucasus - the play reached its dramatic conclusion. The actors stepped forward to rapturous applause. By this time, as the two acts had been separated by a generous interval, I was thinking a little wistfully of home and bed.

But, no! In Azerbaijan, or so it appears, you get your money's worth! The actors had barely left the stage when it was occupied by a pale young man in jeans. In his hands he grasped a small drum. Carefully, he placed long, slim fingers on the surface of the drum . . . closed his eyes . . . and proceeded to
produce such electrifying music as to stun his audience. It was mesmerising . . . incredible . . . and totally unexpected. Such was his skill that he even tossed the drum in the air whilst playing without in any way stemming the torrent of drum beats. The audience who, prior to this had been relaxing, taking photos and whispering amongst themselves, froze into a stunned, appreciative silence.

As suddenly as the drummer had started, so he stopped . . . opened his eyes . . . rose to his feet and left the stage. It had been as bewildering but magnificent finale to the evening. Reaching for my bag, I prepared to leave.

But, what was this? The evening had not ended. Another young man was taking to the stage who, judging by his appearance, could well have been a City banker. Without the guitar-like instrument that he was carrying, I would never have taken him for a musician. He, too, sat down and faced his audience.

What happened next was strange. The young man couldn't really sing. He had no discernible talent for playing his instrument. His voice was soft and occasionally off-key, his music a little discordant. But what he was attempting to play was a selection of songs that went straight to the hearts of his Azerbaijani audience.

Were they the folk songs of Azerbaijan? Were they nationalistic melodies, conjuring up memories and strong emotions? I'll never know. All that was certain was that they galvanised his audience. One by one, the people began to hum, sway, and sing softly to the music. It didn't matter that the young man couldn't sing, it didn't matter that he couldn't really play, what mattered was this upsurge of emotion. Dispelling all memory of the drab and shabby surroundings, it filled the room with colour and vibrancy. Even though I couldn't understand a word of what those around me were singing, I, too, was caught up in the communal spirit . . . and there was no denying the power of the message.

All thoughts of home and bed had been banished. Instead, I was filled with gratitude. Gratitude for such an extraordinary experience. Gratitude for having made an unexpected, magical journey to Azerbaijan . . . via Turnham Green.

Was there, I wondered, a magic carpet to take me home? Or at the very least a camel? This was no occasion for a London bus!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A chapter closes

How can I tell you this . . . ? There's no easy way.
Shortly after Easter I said goodbye to Rupert.

It all happened so quickly. Within weeks of being diagnosed with cancer of the lymph gland, my incredible, loving, courageous companion of eighteen years had gone.

How can one small creature leave so large a hole . . . ? No, I won't even attempt to answer that question.

This hole has extended its reach far beyond London. Messages of sadness and sympathy have been coming from as far afield as Australia and the United States.

Rupert was loved by so many people, more people than I would ever have thought possible.

"He should have an obituary in The Times," said Susan . . . and she wasn't really joking.
Any why not? Has any other cat explored the highways and byways of this island with such enjoyment and verve?
Scotland . . . Wales . . . Devon . . . Cornwall . . . the Lake District and East Anglia, even the Isle of Wight.

Seated, confident and happy, in the passenger seat of the car, Rupert watched the world go by . . . knowing many routes as well as I did! Woe betide me if I drove past the homes of his favourite friends or failed to stop for a satisfying wander in Richmond Park. And which of Rupert's friends would forget his vocal indignation when, at the end of a happy visit, I would tentatively suggest that it was time to go home!

But his life was infinitely richer than a succession of journeys and visits. Has any other cat, I wonder, enabled children with Special Needs to experience the reassurance and pleasure of feline friendship . . .

. . . has any other cat made frequent, much-appreciated visits to nursing homes and hospitals . . .

. . . sat quietly and attentively through services in the great cathedrals of Ely, Salisbury and Winchester . . .

. . . become a familiar, much-loved figure in country hotels . . .

. . . been blessed with both incurable curiosity and an infectious and irrepressible sense of fun . . .

. . . been invited to participate in a book launch at The National Portrait Gallery . . . and celebrated his eighteenth birthday in fitting style with a pub lunch?

I could go on. But, even as I list Rupert's qualities and achievements, I know that I am ignoring his greatest gift . . . his ability to make friends, and to make them on a grand scale.

If I'm to be honest, there was never any real doubt as to who was the dominant partner in our relationship.

"How's the boss?" friends would enquire.

But his was a benign and highly intelligent dictatorship, one to which I willingly and happily conceded. Far more important was the fact that the boss and I loved each other, a love that was to be one of the great blessings of my life.

The silence he left was infinitely more profound than the mere absence of noise. Numbed by the loss, I removed his many belongings. Rupert had always loved to lie on the sofa in the sun. His favourite blanket had been placed directly below the window. When I took away the blanket the sofa looked tired and shabby. Even worse, there was a hole in the fabric directly below where the blanket had sat. My spirits plunged even lower . . . no Rupert . . . no blanket . . . just a hole. A hole which seemed to symbolise so much more than worn upholstery.

Kind friends - also mourning his loss - were wonderfully supportive. They phoned and visited, brought gifts, sent emails, and wrote moving cards and letters.
I was deeply touched and heartened. Flowers filled the flat. An unusual gift came from Anna, a friend who teaches colour therapy. Anna had chosen to send a beautiful stole in soft shades of pink, blue and gold. It might, she said, bring new energies to the room, and she suggested I draped it over the furniture.

I looked at the folded stole . . . then opened it out and measured it against the sofa. To my surprise, it was the perfect length.
Very carefully, I stretched it to its fullest extent . . . it completely covered the sofa, from the hole at one end to the cushions at the other. The sun shone in through the window and the colours shimmered in the spring sunlight.
Where Rupert had been . . . where his blanket had been . . . where the hole had been . . . now lay this beautiful gift. A gift that raised my spirits every bit as much as Anna had hoped it would.

Anna had known nothing of Rupert's blanket, far less of the offending hole. Unwittingly (or with Rupert's help?) she had chosen to send the perfect gift.

Life goes on . . . a new chapter has started . . . but the chapter that has just closed is dedicated to Rupert. If I can't express just how much he meant to me, just how grateful I feel for those eighteen years of remarkable, loving companionship . . . well, it doesn't really matter.

He knows.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

How Thomas Felt

I know how Thomas felt; although he saw
Their shining faces telling him what they
Had seen, for him it could be nothing more
Than second-hand experience: the way
Of learning, not the way of truth. I know
What Thomas craved: not proof that satisfies
Vague doubts - for who can doubt the inner glow
Of witnesses - he longed to feast his eyes,
To hear with his own ears what they had heard,
To fall upon his knees and, as he knelt,
To touch Christ's hem. He did not doubt their word,
He envied them. I know how Thomas felt:
Like all of us he longed to cry, "I know!",
Not murmur feebly, "Someone told me so".

Friday, April 2, 2010

An Easter story

Do you ever suffer from a compelling need to tell a story? A story which, although to you it's undoubted fact, you strongly suspect others might consider highly embroidered, or - which is worse - wishful thinking?

This happens to me every Easter. It’s a story that haunts me because I don’t understand it. Why should it have happened to me? Was I the totally unintended recipient of an extraordinary experience? Someone in the wrong place at the wrong time? It should have changed my life . . . but it didn’t. I should understand it . . . but I don’t. At the very least, it should have established certainties . . . but I continue to question.

All I know is that I’ve been left with a life-long mystery, a mystery that I feel compelled to share . . . a mystery which should surely belong to someone else?

I must have been fifteen at the time. I was still living in Kent and had a close friend, Jane, who lived near Bromley. I had been invited to spend Easter with Jane and her family and, as this included her brother Graham - a student at Cambridge and the object of my respectful admiration - I was only too keen to go.

The plan for Easter Sunday was that we should spend the day sailing on the Medway at Rochester, where Graham and his friend, Roger, had a boat. Both keen sailors, they greatly treasured their boat. Jane, too, was an experienced sailor. Of the four of us, I was the only total novice, and I was keenly anxious not to make a fool of myself. It was agreed that we’d travel to Rochester by motorbike. Jane would ride pillon behind Roger. I, who had never ridden on a motor-bike before, would ride behind Graham.

On the Saturday morning, Graham and Roger planned the route. They decided to travel cross-country to avoid the holiday traffic.
“We’ll go via Westerham,” Graham announced.
“Westerham . . . ?” Jane queried. She turned to me, “Look out for the war memorial . . . it’s amazing . . . absolutely beautiful. Where did it come from?” she asked her brother.
“Italy,” Graham muttered, preoccupied with the map.
Jane turned back to me, “That’s right, Italy . . . you mustn’t miss it. “
“I’ll try not to,” I said, but my thoughts were on other things.

On Easter Day, we went to the eight o’clock service at the local church and then forgot the Easter message completely. Sailing was the order of the day.

If I’d thought that travelling pillion on a motor-bike would be an intimate and convivial experience, I was quickly proved wrong. Such was the noise of the rushing air that it was impossible to talk, and this new art of balancing and holding on took all my concentration. We sped through the lanes physically linked, but mentally worlds apart.

Do you know the Kentish countryside? Many of the narrow lanes have steep banks on either side, banks that are rich with primroses and cowslips in springtime. As you drive down these lanes, with the trees meeting overhead, it is rather like going through a verdant tunnel. We were going down one such lane when I saw what Jane had been talking about . . . a very conspicuous war memorial. It was so conspicuous that it startled me. Taking the form of a large, wooden cross, it was stuck firmly into the bank on the right-hand side of the lane. Rough hewn and unadorned, the stark simplicity was compelling. It had no pediment and the long grass grew up around its base . Recalling Jane’s words, I decided that it was bleak, rather than beautiful. It was challenging . . . unforgetable . . . and there was no doubting its impact.
I shouted into the back of Graham’s neck that I’d seen the war memorial, but my words were carried away in the slipstream. Cautiously, I swung round on my pillion seat to look back at the wooden cross . . . I can see it still.

When we reached the boat everyone was preoccupied with sailing and I quickly forgot what I’d seen on the journey. Knowing nothing about nautical procedures, I thought it best to lie low until we was ready to set sail. There was a pole alongside the boat which no-one appeared to need. I carefully lowered myself down and sat on it. To my horror the pole proved more fragile than it looked, and promptly snapped beneath my weight. This was not a good start to the day. Hoping that no-one was looking, I hastily pushed the broken pieces out of sight.
“Has anyone seen the boom?” asked Graham.
When calm had been restored, and I’d apologised for the umpteenth time for breaking the all-important boom, a makeshift boom was created and we set sail. Thoroughly miserable and ashamed, I seated myself in the stern of the boat and kept quiet.
It wasn’t until we stopped for a picnic lunch that I remembered the war memorial, and told Jane what I'd seen.
“”Lovely, isn’t it,” she said.
“Magnificent . . . such a massive piece of wood!”
“That,” said Jane shortly, her temper still frayed over the episode of the boom, “is the finest Italian marble.”
I decided it was best not to argue, “ . . . it’s an amazing cross, anyway.”
Jane looked at me, thoroughly puzzled, “Not a cross, a marble angel. A beautiful marble angel.”
It was my turn to look puzzled, “Then what,” I asked, “was the old wooden cross?”
But no-one else had seen it.

Jane and I returned to school soon afterwards, but it was years before I abandoned my search for anyone who knew of that wooden cross. Whenever I encountered anyone who lived near Westerham, anyone who knew Westerham, I would make enquiries. Did they know of the wooden cross beside the lane that Easter Sunday? Was there a local farmer who put up a cross on his land? The people I asked were kind and tolerant, but no-one knew anything about a wooden cross.
I was left with an unexplained, unexplainable story. I was stuck with it.

At the time I felt worried and perplexed. Why me? I didn’t want to be burdened with a miracle. Far less a miracle that I hadn’t recognised as such. At times, when I was young, I would even feel angry. As someone who had failed to recognise a miracle, I resented being burdened with the responsibility that it implied.

It’s a story which has turned me into an Ancient Mariner. Even now, half a century later, I feel compelled to tell it because I don’t understand it. Was I meant to have been the first female Bishop, or, at the very least, a nun? Have I failed the vision I was given? I continue to question, and puzzle, and wonder, and eschew most religious certainties. But one of the few certainties that I do hold to is the reality of that old wooden cross. Had you seen it, I know you’d feel the same.

There it is . . . a story that I can't explain, but which continues to haunt me . . . thank you for sharing it.

Happy Easter!