Inspired by the beautiful broken dream of America.
Last year I went to see Billy Bragg play as a duo with his American friend Joe Henry. It was his Shine A Light tour focusing on songs they had recorded about the American rail road. It was a fabulous concert - in fact I went twice. Through the songs shone the tough resilience of the American spirit, and the strong threads of compassion and defiance that are essential part of the story. But there was a ghost in the room. The tour occurred shortly after the US elections and perhaps the disappointment and sadness of the Trump victory hung in the air. The American Dream denied.
Joe Henry, with grace and dignity met the issue head on. After speaking a few words acknowledging the issue that hung around us he concluded by asking to believe that ‘this is not who we are but where we are’.
‘Who we are?’ As I left and drove home I thought about how much my entire life had been haunted and inspired by the raw, simple idea of America. America as legend in a landscape, America as the incarnation of resistance and the struggle for freedom. The idea of self-determination where you judged by your worth not your family. A place where you could ‘start again’. Where the choices you made cut straight to chase about who you were and what you believed. And I had always been haunted by the rough-hewn characters of this legend: the vagabond soul, the outlaw, the bar room queen, the biker, the renegade, the immigrant, the bootlegger, the gambler, the defiant Indian warrior and the broken-hearted hobo. Of strong women and lesser men. Of heroes and villains
And as these thoughts lingered on with me I became drawn to explore this extraordinary, flawed, magnificent idea and the spirit in which it which it arose. It seemed to me that there was things here too easy to forget in these times of false truths, media manipulation and the trashing of principle, that there is something essential and universal about our romance with this mythical, fabulous world.
Such is the way for me these days this almost inevitably means going travelling, this time with my good friend Dinny on a three hundred mile trek through the forests, high places and hidden spaces of the old Cherokee Nation in Tennessee and North Carolina In doing this we will be taking the Benton Mackaye trail, one of the lesser known diversions of the Appalachian Trail, camping as we go and trying to avoid irritable bears, rattlesnakes, agitated natives, over exuberant creeks, a whole variety other nonsense whilst trying to hear in the trees, and scent on the wind the echoes of the things that inspire us all. As I write this I am about to set off and as with Morocco trip, endeavour to capture my meanderings with regular posts.
In parallel with this I have been working on a new album over the summer with my great friends Chris Lydon, John Humphries and Kev Moore. Four souls steeped in the ongoing musical conversation between the old world and the new, artisans all, we have been paying homage to the American music we love, not as a superficial pastiche or copy but as our response to the spirit, soul and sanctuary of it all. The working title of the album is A Beautiful Broken Dream: Gone to Look for America.
Somewhere I know the trek and the album will intersect - perhaps there will be a book, perhaps something else. But I don’t really know how or in what ways yet. Which is how it should be I guess.
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A new poem still under 'construction'. I have recently moved my lovely battered old boat 'Emeline' down to Cropredy on the Oxford Canal. I have dreamed for years about having a narrowboat and this dream is one of the lucky ones that when achieved is all that it is supposed to be. For my money there is no better way to see the wonderful arcane, mysterious place that is England than pottering along at the steady pace of BMC engine chuntering to itself.
It was a Kingfisher morn,
A low mist, the lingering breath of a summers night,
Hung like a ragged eiderdown upon dark waters,
Before evaporating at the new day’s calling
Leaving the canal dappled in the shimmering light
Falling through willow.
As Emeline, steady and measured and awake
Moved to the call of heavy horses whose
flickering feathered remembrance lingered in the hedgerows
And ducked under the swing bridge from field to cow
A Kingfisher morn,
a dominion of sorts,
Where the Capdockin and Flapperdock, the names of old England
As much as the church on the hill and site of the mill,
Stand rhubarb proud at the border, a raggle-taggle audience
To the sublime.
And in the sour green depths of the lock – whose out stretched arms
Wait for the Fisher King, the luscious waters ooze
That all may be healed and transported.
These are halcyon days in the unreliable summer,
of the Damsoiselle fly flitting in ultramarine for the fluttering of brief romance
Dandling in the air amongst the white dog rose and the azure flax
And fussy moorhens and scolding Mute Swans.
When around us, the fields of Oxfordshire
Unbound and close to paradise
Rose expectant and ruddy
Into a time of exuberant flourishing
Flush with the joy of sunlight
An anthem for the vanishing King.
Twelve years ago I found myself on top of Mount Toubkal, the highest point in North Africa. It isn’t a difficult climb, just needing decent shoes and decent lungs. But it is ‘a highest spot’, and though I like to ramble and explore, getting to the top of things is usually beyond what I do. So perhaps that is why, as I sat there looking out over the High Atlas through air as clear as the day it was made (?), there arose the notion that I might travel over these ancient time-shattered peaks all the way to the desert. And it was immediately obvious that it was one of those ideas that must be nurtured and adapted to, like an unplanned child. To walk from this ‘highest spot’ into the great, sprawling wilderness of the Sahara Desert was an offer from the gods which I could not turn down. Twelve years passed, until this year I decided the time was right to accept it.
I am an obsessive note- taker and the following are excerpts from the Moleskine notebook I carry with me on every journey. (This post is a version of a recent article: see http://www.kasbahdutoubkal.com/news/
April 29th 2017
Maybe it’s me or maybe it’s Berber culture but establishing a specific itinerary and timetable is always elusive and I have found it more my style to embrace the ambiguity and happenstance that seems to go so easily with my time in Morocco. So it was after a good breakfast, some decent coffee and well-wishes of Abdul and his friends at the Kasbah du Toubkal I set off back down the hillside into Imlil to drive to Telouet, where we would visit the remains of the Kasbah of the ‘Lords of the Atlas’, the fearsome but compelling Glaoui family. Moha and I would also rendezvous with two mules and possibly one or more muleteers before and setting off on the 500 km trek.
Well the reasons to go just keep on growing! Further to my last blog on Gavin Maxwell, not only does my forthcoming trek take me into the heartlands of the Glauoa - the tribe of the Lords of the Atlas who in the early 20th Century with the active connivance of the French subdued and destroyed a Berber culture and people remarkable for their independence and sense of freedom, replacing it with a regime of ferocious brutality and flamboyance - it now appears I may doing some accidental anthropological research! I may be searching for a lost tribe of dwarfs.
There were serious arguments at the end of the 19th Century put forward by a Canadian lawyer Robert Halliburton for the existence, on the Southern side of the Atlas Mountains, of a tribe of curly haired red-skinned dwarfs. Not surprisingly this was a somewhat controversial assertion ,with vigorous debates in various academic bodies. The region itself was almost unvisited by westerners - indeed the reason the French armed the Gluoua with modern weapons was to keep this remote under some sort of control.
. Halliburton continued to insist that he had more than enough evidence to prove this true until the day he died. After which the controversy seems to have died away. My old pal, Robert Twigger mentioned them in passing years ago - just one in a flow of esoteric comments that makes time with him so enjoyable. A search of the internet - this is when the internet is truly magnificent - revealed a series of archive documents indicating the dwarfs in the remote region around the D’raa valley through which I will be rambling. More to follow..
One of the goals of this trek is to raise money for Education for All Morocco - raising money to fund the education of Berber girls in the High Atlas. If you would like to find out more click here
A few years ago I found myself on top of Mount Toubkal, the highest point in North Africa. It isn’t a difficult climb just requiring decent shoes and decent lungs. But it is ‘a highest spot’, and though I like to ramble and explore getting to the top of things is usually beyond what I do. So perhaps that is why, as I sat there looking out over the High Atlas range through air as clear as the day it was made, there arose the notion that I might travel over these ancient time shattered peaks all the way to the desert. And as it surfaced unbidden into my brain, I ruefully cursed, as it was immediately obvious that it was one of those ideas that must be nurtured and adapted to, like an unplanned child. To walk from this ‘highest spot’ on and over into the great, sprawling wilderness of the Sahara Desert was an offer from the gods which I could not turn down.
But that was nearly ten years ago…
One of the things that has kept me going over the years is that a great idea and the action that must follow do not have to be contiguous – that it is OK to wait for an idea to swell and grow like a seed well planted. Of course, there is a danger here of procrastination and I have surely have been guilty of that, but part of the art of life surely is to recognise the right moment, when through time, and rain, and sun that the seed is ripe for harvesting.
So in the middle of last year I took up the idea again as I sensed parts of my life slowing and closing and towards the end of Autumn made a firm commitment.
With my Berber friend 'Brahim, in May I am going to walk the old fashioned way with mules from the highest point in North Africa into the desert, down from Toubkal through the Draa Valley to M'hamid around 400 km away. This is not an established trek or route and not an 'organised event ' and I have not so far been able to find anyone else who has done it.
I have been working on some poems recently as a kind of limbering exercise before I get back to the book I am avoiding writing! A bit rough and ready but here it is - not only T. Gray got to chill his backside in a churchyard in contemplation of greater things.
Made me wonder, in a electronic age, when all things are filed in the cumulus nimbus - will we all end with the press of the delete button!
They buried kings of little kingdoms here once,
And then centuries of peasants,
Yeoman, all countryfolk,
Made equal in the rotting clay,
Until the rising of the common word,
Brought on weathered purple stone
The single word biographies of
Curate, wife, child and parishioner
Of Jacob, Bessy, Seth and James
Given a temporary glimpse of immortality.
Such as this might have lingered in the thoughts
Of the unexpected rows of airmen,
Who fell from the clouds to lie,
In rows of white cross uniforms,
Still on duty, still on parade,
By the tumbling wall.
I sat upon the memorial bench
Watching the light of the long-shadowed
As it sparkled on the frosted grass,
And played upon the old church wall,
Against the face of the curious knight above the door,
Whose rusty sword, blunt with age,
Is no guardian of truth or desire,
Or that which should remain.