Sunday, March 06, 2005

Must the youngest open the oldest hills.

Love can hijack your otherwise normal life with only a rusty bent teaspoon and a packet of clothes pegs - the wooden ones that start out a pleasing pine colour and end up a slimy grey-green from the weather. Love can drive you barmy with its relentless weeks of monotony that prepares you for throwing it all in and getting a real life; and then it flattens all your objections with a broadside of pure bliss so iridescent that you are blinded for days and your mind is invincible in the afterglow.

I betrayed my great love the other week for a few days, as I sulked about the lack of a visa and in a fit of pique I threatened my mind with going home and starting another undergraduate course in the history of another country, one that would give me a visa. I even contemplated, god forbid, Australian history. But you can’t rage against what is in your blood, what is hard wired into your brain, what brings you your greatest joy. And so I am stuck with being irretrievably in love with Britain, damn its visa laws, horrid weather and lack of coffee shops to the proverbial.

The difference between the indulgence of my love in Australia and in England is the difference between sight and blindness. In Australia reading my textbooks I was sightless, merely sensing the shapes and imagining the sights of what I was reading. When I was finally given the visuals, my life began all over again.

For example, Wales has been shaped in my mind by a combination of history and literature – the Celtic raiders harrying the Romans turning into the Arthurian legend, the endless sorties along the Norman Welsh Marches raging around the romantic tales of Sharon Penman, Welsh mythology flavouring the books by Susan Cooper that were my favourite series of books for almost 12 years. When we crossed the border of Shropshire into Wales on Saturday and saw our first surprisingly abrupt outcrop of towering Welsh hills, I saw both the corporeal Wales and the Special Edition Deluxe Claire’s Imagined Wales.

The SEDCIW (hey, that looks like Welsh doesn’t it?) is pretty much a multicoloured layer of meaning cast like rainbow threads across the landscape I was watching roll past my window. Snowdonia's peaks mesmerised me with their harshness and because I could see Will and Bran racing the Grey King across valleys and time spans to follow Merriman’s ancient trail. Tramping carefully down an abandoned Roman road during our three hour mountain hike and I could sense the Roman auxiliaries racing past me up the incline, hoping to be unobserved by the roving and deadly Welsh war bands. Groping my way up the stairs of a ruined Norman watchtower I imagined trying to get a broadsword and full armour up to the top without being boiled alive in my steel cage or getting an arrow in the throat.

In the ruined crofts on the arid hills and the dry stone walls that marched from plunging valleys up in ruler-straight vertical lines to the tops of mountains, I could see the crucible that created every Welsh character I had ever met, from Arthur to Llewellyn the Great and Bran. When you invest so much of your life in absorbing the echoes of the lives and imaginations of others, the heavy weight on your heart of being at the source of carefully hoarded knowledge feels like the warmth of your lover’s arm curled round your chest. You are home and safe, where they understand you.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005


From the ages of 5 to 16 years old I wanted to be an archaeologist, nattily attired in khaki, under the baking sun, slowing brushing away red dirt to reveal priceless treasures.

When I gave up that dream, I replaced it with another one, that of marrying an archaeologist. This occurred to me when, collating some of my favourite quotes to facilitate the delivery of a pithy yet educated aside in polite conversation, I came across Agatha Christie’s assessment of life with an archaeologist;

An archaeologist is the best husband a woman could have. The older she gets, the more interested he is in her.

Dame Christie was my top author for many years and I still experience the thrill of meeting up with an old friend when Poirot and Captain Hastings converse in their sitting room at the start of each story, much like those other most famous of sleuths, Holmes and Dr Watson. Such was my admiration that, believing imitation was indeed the sincerest form of flattery, I once tried to create my own Murder on the Orient Express scenario, complete with train, detective and an English peer named Debenham. This story springs to mind each time I pass a Debenhams store and probably accounts for my unnatural fondness for the chain.

Murder on the Orient Express 2, written by your correspondent, was no earth-shattering creation, as at the age of 11 I was beginning to realise that my first book was a long way off. My continued attempts at an opus were scuttled by my short attention span, my love of starting stories with excellent bildungsroman and no dénouement, and my discovery of Alan Coren’s short stories which prompted a spate of humorous little vignettes which are still some of my favourite pieces of writing. Thankfully the world was spared my space opera set a thousand years in the future in a carefully planned space station, my spaghetti western starring a spirited Pinto stallion and my tale of the wife of a Greek blacksmith who discovered a planet and called it … Contecilla. I can’t believe I still remember the name.

All this reminiscing is actually in aid of something though. Today, while sitting on a train at Clapham Junction with Jac, I saw the Orient Express pass through the other platform. The gleaming steam engine, the delicious Pullman cars, the curtain hung windows and the lamp bedecked tables, it was everything I had imagined it would be. And despite its crippling price, riding the Orient Express is back up at the top of my list of things to do before I die, right behind touring Siberia in a refitted rocket launcher.