Barracoon: The Story of the Last Slave

shackle-2349141_1920

(Shackle Ring Iron, Andrew Martin, Pixaby)

October is Black History Month, an international celebration of Black contributions to society.  I’m in an online readers’ group with charity Shelterbox where I make a monthly donation and each month receive the Book of the Month, voted on by members of the group. This month it is Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston and as I settled down to read, I found it incredible that, although completed in 1931, it had taken until 2018 to be published. Alice Walker, who writes the Foreword, explains why:

“…one understands immediately the problem many black people, years ago, especially black intellectuals and political leaders had with it. It resolutely records the atrocities African peoples inflicted on each other, long before shackled Africans, traumatized, ill, disoriented, starved, arrived on ships as ‘black cargo’ in the hellish west”

In 1927 anthroplogist Zora Neale Hurston travelled to Mobile, Alabama, to conduct a series of interviews with the last surviving African of the Middle Passage, who travelled on the last American slave ship, Clotilda, fifty years after slavery was outlawed. Over a period of three months she met with Oluale Kossola (renamed Cudjo Lewis by his owner) and carefully listened to his story. Kossola had been enslaved, survived the Civil War, endured the Jim Crow era, lived through WW1 and the Great Depression, been married and had lost his wife and all six children. At ninety years of age he was a lonely man, still grieving for his family and lost homeland. A man who wanted his story told and for it to reach his people.

I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go in de Affricky soil some day and callee my name and somebody say : ‘Yes, I know Kossola.’ ”

Apart from the richness of historical detail, this story is much more than just a study in the African diaspora or the transformation of the African identity. It is a story of a man, brutally taken from his village by a neighbouring tribe, stored in pens at the coast then shipped along with one hundred others in appalling conditions to a foreign country, kept hidden below decks to avoid detection by patrol boats, worked like a dog for over five years  then when Emancipated, was thrown out onto the streets. He asked to be returned to his country but was accused of being ungrateful. Abused by neighbours, hit by a train but received no compensation despite a court ruling, his children killed in horrific and heartbreaking circumstances, he later lost his wife. Yet throughout all his trials Kossola tried to live a good life, didn’t seek revenge against anyone, but struggled to understand why people behaved the way they did and why black people born in America also treated him badly, calling him and other Africans ‘ignorant’.

Told in his own words this is a powerful contribution to history. And also, finally Kossola’s story has been able to reach a wide audience.

Life inexhaustible, goes on. And we do too. Carrying our wounds and our medicines as we go.”      Alice Walker (March 2018)

slave-cabin-440349_1920

(Slave Cabin Laura Plantation, JamesdeMers, Pixabay)

 

Storytelling

“The way we experience story will evolve, but as storytelling animals, we will no more give it up than start walking on all fours.”

Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal

Forgive me, it’s been a long time since my last confession. Ill health, disappointment and depression have been the main culprits behind that, but then one of those strange little random moments that life throws at us completely changed that, revitalised me and guided me back on course.

 

2019-03-04_111648

I was browsing in a second-hand bookshop and discovered The Seashell on the Mountaintop by Alan Cutler. It is the biography of a C17th Danish scientist whose curiosity and intelligence was to lead him to fame as an anatomist in the Medici court in Florence, and it was here that he made his most significant discoveries, became an anatomist of the earth and determined the Four Principles of Stratigraphy still used by geologists today.

Born Niels Steensen, his name was Latinised at university to Nicholai Stenonis, but the world knows him simply as Steno, the father of geology. Immediately I felt inspired to tell his fascinating story. I decided to attempt a poetry sequence and a friend suggested the haibun form, a melody of prose and haiku championed by Japanese poetry master Basho.

Basho used the haibun for essays, diary entries and travel accounts so the idea of a journey began to form. Steno travelled extensively but he also underwent a spiritual journey from Lutheran scientist to Catholic bishop and I felt the haibun form would enable me to tell that story. However, when I started researching background information to understand the science involved in Steno’s discoveries I realised that this story was much bigger than just Steno and his Four Principles of Stratigraphy; it was the story of the earth itself and the evolution of life upon it.

The first problem was how to tell such a vast story? I decided that it would be a sequence of voices, each telling part of the story, and the whole sequence would be divided into four sections, each section metaphorically related to one of the Principles as determined by Steno. Another problem was the various theories involved in the story of evolution and history of humankind, so I plumped for one and ran with it, weaving together science and history. Like fairy stories or folk tales there may be other versions but we choose the one we’re most comfortable with. I make no claims to be an expert, but I hope the versions that I have chosen are consistent.

Having made these decisions I applied for, and was fortunate enough to be awarded, funding from DG Unlimited to undertake research in Florence and to engage the excellent support of mentor, Jim Bennett, poet and creator of online poetry services The Poetry Kit. (www.poetrykit.org)

watch-3477920

(photo by Mabel Amber, Still Incognito – Pixabay)

With his help I recently completed Ancient Anchors, the title taken from Ovid – Metamorphoses Book XV (8AD)

“Seashells lie far away from ocean’s waves and ancient anchors have been found on mountaintops”

and I’m now looking for a publisher. Enter the old disappointment about UK poetry publishing houses who are few and have a backlog of 3 years’ worth of books to publish therefore they’re not accepting any new submissions. However, there is always the option of self-publishing so watch this space…

 

Discomfort is relative

Last month I went to Crete. The return flight didn’t get into Edinburgh till 1.30am and the first train out to Lockerbie, where I’d left my car, wasn’t till 8.30am so I made the decision to sleep in the airport rather than try to find accommodation for a few hours. It was cold, uncomfortable and I wasn’t able to sleep at all, despite my fatigue. But it was interesting, on quite a few levels.

I used to run a Duke of Edinburgh Award when I was working and had to do some of my mountian leadership training in winter. So I’ve slept in tents up mountains in all weathers, waded through waist-high icy-cold streams, belayed people off hills when my hands could barely move with the cold, but lying on a draughty bench in the arrivals part of an airport dressed only in a coat, jeans and jumper, was way more difficult. I take my hat off to rough sleepers who do this all year round.

As a writer I like to have experiences that stretch me a bit out of my comfort zone so that I can empathise with characters whose lives I’ve created different from mine. In my next novel one of my characters ends up on the streets, but actually living on the streets to experience this might be a step too far for me. I’m 67 with a long-term illness that is exacerbated by stress and requires daily medication, so in practical terms, that is a non-starter. However, there are lots of blogs and accounts written by homeless people about their lives that provide real insights into their thinking, fears and dreams, how they are treated by authorities and the general public, that makes for sobering reading.

One blog I came across is by gabfrab, a guy who lives in his car in Austin, Texas. Whilst some of his descriptions of eating out of bins, attempting to get laid, personal hygiene issues and living in car lots where crack and other addicts congregate make disturbing reading, he offers great insights into his way of life:

“I wish the world were more forgiving of the homeless, felt no need to interfere in someone’s life for no reason. I’m one of the lucky few. I have shelter. Good sleep. Money. I barely feel homeless. I  only remember that I am when it’s bedtime or I’m trying to find a woman to be in my life. Other than being alone I have it good. I walk the paths along the river, sit in my car outside the library and write. I swim the creek and hike the greenbelt trail through its rocky, weedy paths. Sometimes I’ll do fifteen miles in a day, others just a couple before I sit to sunbathe. These things are my routine but also the building blocks of a solitary life. I do everything alone. I don’t always like it but that’s the way it is. It’s hard to keep people in your life when you’re always drifting.” (https://gabfrab.com/2017/03/26/jizz-coffin)

He supports himself by being a lab rat in pharmaceutical trials. Despite having money he has chosen a life lived in his car, without emotional entaglements or responsibilities. Reading his blog is unsettling; I sit in the warmth and comfort of my own home, vicariously experiencing this young man’s ups and downs through his brutal honesty. My discomfort arises from my perceived notions of  ‘acceptable’ norms bumping against the reality of his situation. And it pales into insignificance compared to the actual discomfort experienced by homeless people everywhere.

Time Out

“The habits of our lives have a powerful momentum that propels us toward the moment of our death. The obvious question arises: What habits do we want to create? Our thoughts are not harmless. Thoughts manifest as actions, which in turn develop into habits, and our habits ultimately harden into character. Our unconscious relationship to thoughts can shape our perceptions, trigger reactions, and predetermine our relationship to the events of our lives.” (Frank Ostaseski The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully)

We all need time out to reflect, to look at where we’ve been, to decide where we want to go to, to examine the meaning in our lives. It’s been six months since my last blog and in that time I’ve been out of action for several reasons. I had a wonderful month holidaying in Canada followed by a writing week in a bothy in Scotland, then I was debilitated for almost four months from an infected dog bite. My focus during those four months was to get well and resume my life, but I found I was floundering trying to pick up the reins again. Always one for a bit of travel I decided to go to a writers’ retreat in Crete run by life coach, Emotion Code and Body Code practitioner, Vanessa Westwell,  (https://writersretreatcrete.com) to reflect on where I am and where I want to be.

The retreat is on the third floor of a very pleasant, light and airy apartment in the market town of Agios Nikolaos in East Crete with stunning views from the balcony over the town to the mountains and sea. The weather was perfect, between 25-28°C, with azure-blue skies and warm winds, just what I needed to unwind and shed all the stress of the previous months. Walking next to the sea, around the harbour and lake, admiring the sculptures and sitting in cafés drinking coffee or freshly squeezed orange juice, I could feel the knots loosen.

The retreat has a private writing room ajoining the bedroom and a private balcony connecting the two rooms. October is quiet, there are fewer tourists but still plenty of things to do. There is the old leper colony on the island of Spinalonga just a short boat ride away, an olive farm nearby where they make their own olive oil, grow their own herbs, make their own cheese and honey, run cookery and pottery classes. Just a few kilometers away there are ancient villages with white sugar-cube houses higgle-piggled on the mountainside, archeological sites, museums, galleries and for the more ambitious, hill walking and climbing. It’s an area rich in history and the Cretans are rightly proud of their heritage.

I decided to take the full board option and despite me being vegetarian and wheat intolerant, Vanessa rose to the occasion, furnishing me with delicious meals and snacks that made my stay so relaxing and enjoyable. I came home refreshed, buzzing with ideas, and more able to deal with life’s events that sometimes cause me to become unstuck. I can honestly say that a retreat in the sun can give your soul wings, and having a host as kind and caring as Vanessa is an added bonus.

“Success in life is less about what you do and more about what you allow yourself to become” (Clare Josa, Dare to Dream Bigger)

I’m allowing myself to become more relaxed and connected to my creativity in ways that enhance who I am, who I want to be, and how I want to live. Fully.

A Suggestion of Bones

Last week saw the launch of my new poetry pamphlet A Suggestion of Bones. It mainly comprises of individual poems published in small press magazines, anthologies or online and the over-riding theme is of things hidden, not being what they seem or lurking just beneath the surface.

The title comes from the last line of one of the poems At Birdoswald, a ruined Roman fort three miles from where I used to live in Gilsland, Northumberland, which is a village on the Roman Wall that stretches from Wallsend in Tyne and Wear across Northumberland and ends at the other side of the country in Carlisle in Cumbria. When I lived there I used to walk a great deal in the surrounding countryside with its spectacular views, craggy hills, deep valleys where clear ice-cold water gurgled and splashed, and Roman ruins hunkered down in the grass. At those times, I used to imagine what it would be like being an Italian soldier banished to these outposts in Britain, living in inhospitable weather and keeping the marauding hordes of Picts and Scots at bay.

A few years later I went back to visit my old stopming grounds. I needed to touch something familiar in my soul, to resolve some of my indecisions, and this poem came out of the visit.

At Birdoswald

There’s iron on the wind.

Sunset gasps from the horizon,

dusk circles like a cloak of feathers,

light flees the amassing darkness

and each breath hangs

like a ghostly membrane

 

promising a night of stars and stories.

 

After days of disquiet

I feel surrounded by tinder, fear

the burst of a match on shavings

of my soul and embers fanned

by the darkling wind. But here,

amongst the squatting ruins,

 

my crowded mind stills its chatter,

 

descends deeper into the landscape,

transcends time. I feel the scratch

of memory, smell the woodsmoke

of regret, touch the bruise of fear caught

between cracks of then and now,

hidden in the hillocks around me

 

like the suggestion of bones beneath skin.

A Suggestion of Bones is available from Amazon ttps://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_c_2_13?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=a+suggestion+of+bones&sprefix=A+suggestion+%2Caps%2C268&crid=2CW

 

The Furtunate Platform of Many Years

THE FOURTH SIGN OF THE ZODIAC (PART 3)

I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.

So why not get started immediately.

I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.

And to write music or poems about.

Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
Bless touching.

You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
Or not.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be as urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.                    

Mary Oliver – Blue Horses: Poems 2014

I cannot add to this. Just enjoy and reflect.

Perfection

It’s been a busy (and fraught) couple of weeks so apologies this blog comes a little late. My personal disposition has not been helped by world events unfolding in the media but I have to say, it does provide rich material for novels. The Trump administration trying to deflect attention from their involvement with Russia by accusing Obama of wire taps and, not content that Michael Flynn fell on his sword for them, they’re now labelling him a ‘foreign agent’. The new travel ban, the erosion of human rights, the lies…in the past a publisher might have said that it’s too much for one novel, that all those things happening more or less simultaneously is completely unbelievable. Not now.

We here in the UK fare no better: Brexit, the deportation of non-nationals who’ve lived here for years, the new rules regarding asylum seekers brought in (and effective immediately) when attention was on the Budget. We also have a new re-introduction of selective schools and schools who don’t enter some students for exams for fear of lowering the school’s overall ratings in the league tables. The world as I know it is going mad. So it got me thinking about a perfect world, what that would look like and who it is perfect for.

I can’t remember ever being called perfect before by anyone – family, partners, friends, colleagues – until Monday. I was having my monthly foot MOT (a luxury, I know) when  from nowhere my practitioner said, ‘I love working on your feet – your toes are still very flexible, the skin nice and soft, and there’s no damage from shoes. They’re perfect.’ I suppose at my age after standing for most of my working life, dancing away a good part of it and the rest spent hiking or running half marathons, that’s quite an achievement. But are my feet really where I want the perfection to be in my life?

I have succumbed, as so many women do, to notions of imperfection because my body was not the right shape, tone, strength. Even though I know it has nothing to do with my identity and it doesn’t define me, I still catch myself checking my image in the mirror and eat less when my waistbands start getting tight. One weekend, during a bout of depression, I decided to treat myself to a beauty therapy. I chose an organic mud wrap. I was first measured then slathered from chin to toes in mud before being wrapped in clingfilm and left in a darkened room for about an hour to relax.

The treatment was ‘guaranteed’ to help you lose 3 inches or your money back, but the 3 inches were accumulative from different parts of the body. When my treatment was finished I was measured again. I hadn’t lost the 3 inches, only 2, and the area where I’d lost most was 1 inch from my neck, which could least do with losing anything. Not quite the result I expected (or wanted). I didn’t get my money back, despite their ‘guarantee’, but it did make me laugh. Eventually.

In my perfect world everyone would be nice to each other, there would be no poverty, wars, abuse, discrimination, huge corporations owning half the planet and no-one would do anything to damage the climate, over-fish the seas, pollute the earth and her water, abandon children or mistreat animals. But if the world really was like that I’d soon become bored. There’d be no drama, nothing to write about, nothing to fight about or defend, nothing to strive for, no need to do inner work to self-improve. Life would be monochrome and what feels perfect to me wouldn’t necessarily be perfect for anyone else. Yet the perfection I seek is not found in the world behaving in a way I want it to, but in the small random moments that may not go according to plan but teach me something.

There would be no need for love if perfection were possible. Love arises from our imperfection, from our being different and always in need of the forgiveness, encouragement and that missing half of ourselves that we are searching for, as the Greek myth tells us, in order to complete ourselves. Eugene Kennedy
https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/perfection.html