On Sufism

I first became aware of Sufism in 1972, when I started going out with Mary, a young, twenty-year-old student, who belonged to a Sufi group. So every Friday I accompanied her to the Salisbury Centre in Edinburgh, where up to twenty of us formed a circle in the stunning, newly built hexagonal hall before we all whirled round and round until we were nearly dizzy. At the time, I was living in a squat in West Adam Street, and it was there I met Pete and Paul, two young men from Doncaster, who were also interested in Sufism. Then, when the squat folded, and the whole scene disintegrated, I went to work in Canada, while Pete and Paul went down to live on Squire Farm in Gloucestershire, where, I heard, they were helping to build a new Sufi centre.

After that, I lost contact with them and I went to live in Amsterdam, where I lost interest in Sufism and became interested in yoga instead. Eleven years later I returned to Edinburgh, but twenty years were to pass before I heard that there was a Sufi centre called Chisholm House in the Borders. So, out of curiosity, two years ago, I went down for the open day. It was a sunny summer’s afternoon, and I remember how struck I was with the whole experience. To get there was going into a completely different world. First, you drove for an hour down through the rolling Borders, until, just outside Hawick, you turned right over a small bridge onto a tiny country road. Then, ten kilometres later, you turned off onto another small country road, before you turned off onto an even smaller one. Then you turned off onto a single track which climbed towards deserted moors, before it reached Chisholm House. Surrounded by immensely tall, sighing trees, it was a beautiful old country house, which, after lying derelict for years, had been fully restored by volunteers. At the front there was a lovely lawn, while to the side, in the middle of a copse, was a small, peaceful lake where white swans swam. Beyond the lawn was a steep rise, on top of which, looking out over remote, surrounding moors, was a round white obelisk dedicated to Bulent, the Turkish teacher who had been the leading force behind the rejuvenation of Chisholm before his death.


Not much later, I discovered, to my astonishment, that both Pete and Paul — who had become completely involved with Sufism — had been living in Hawick for the last twenty years. Then, after the Buddhist group which I had been involved with for nearly a decade unfortunately more or less folded, I started,, every so often, going down to Chisholm for the weekend. Now it has more or less become my substitute spiritual home

On the earthquake in Nepal

Last week I was really upset to hear the news about the earthquake in Nepal to which I travelled overland from India in 1979. I immediately fell in love with it — the country, with its towering mountains, is perhaps the most spectacular I’ve ever been to — and the capital, Katmandu, with its countless medieval temples, narrow alleyways and bustling stalls, was absolutely fascinating.

Buddhist boy in Thangboche monastery with Mount Everest in the background

Buddhist boy in Thangboche monastery with Mount Everest in the background

So I could hardly bear to hear the reports of the thousands of people who had been killed, or hear of the destruction of so many of the unique wooden temples in Durban Square, the very centre of Katmandu, where, high up on the steps, I had sat and idly watched dozens of monkeys playing. This was not even to mention hearing about the terrible destruction that the powerful earthquake, which measured 7.8 on the Richter scale, had wrought in Pagan, a nearby town which, like Katmandu, was a World Heritage Site, and was, if anything, even more amazing than the capital.

But most painful of all, I could hardly bear to see the images of what had happened at Mount Everest Base Camp, to which, at 5,800 metres, I climbed that same year. Now, after a massive landslide and avalanche, the very spot where I had stopped and looked up at the vertiginous Khumbu Ice Wall was buried under thousands of tons of ice, rocks and boulders, and, at the latest count, dozens of Sherpas and climbers had either been killed or were missing, presumed dead.

Now, with those dreadful images of broken bodies, snapped prayer flags and crushed tents still fresh in my mind, I’m reminded once again of the fragility of life, and of the saying ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ …

On differences between Greece and Germany

One of the things I like about getting older is that, as you gather more and more experience, you get to know better and better what you like or dislike. For example, I’ve recently come to the realisation, after doing evening classes during the winter in Modern Greek and German, how much I prefer the language of the former to the language of the latter. Of course, much of this is down to the sound of the language, but much of it also has to do with what you associate with the culture of that language. So, for example I love the sounds of the Xs in Greek as much as I dislike the guttural CHs in German. I also associate Greek with glittering seas, whitewashed villages and yellow, blue and red caiques, while I associate German with interminable and boring discussions about employment, wages and the rate of inflation.

Nor has it anything to do with how well I speak the language, because German is perhaps the best of the nine languages that I attempt to speak (often very badly) while Greek, no matter how hard I try, is one of my worst. Of course, other factors come into play. Like most people, I have great admiration for the Germans, especially the way they have dealt with their militaristic past and the lessons they have learned from their history. I admire them because they are almost invariably well-educated, well-informed and articulate. And I admire them for their lack of nationalism, their Europeanism, and the way they have built a real social democracy, unlike the British, who slavishly copy everything American, including its appalling turbo-capitalism. But I’m not saying anything new when I say that it’s hard to love Germans and their perfectionism, which is, of course, at the same time the cause of their being probably the most stressed-out nation in the world.

However, it’s not because I love the Greeks that I love Greece. Greek men, in particular, I have always found intolerably macho and inflammatory, and I’ve lost count of the number of times whenever I go to Greece that I’m confronted yet again with another rude and aggressive middle-aged Greek male. However, Greece is such a beautiful country, and I love its mesmerizing islands and its culture — whether it’s drama, theatre, sculpture and mythology — so much that they make up for the often less than attractive qualities of its men.

My belated realization that I love Greece more than anywhere else is rather strange, because I’ve been going there for more than forty-five years and so it’s taken me a lot of time to come to this conclusion. But it also has to do with the realization that what I love most in life are islands, boats, and water, of which there are more in Greece than practically anywhere else. It’s therefore one of the few countries that I go back to more than once (India and China are the others), seeing that I think it’s a mistake to return to somewhere you love, because usually, if you do, you’ll only find out how time has ruined it. This was especially brought home to me when I returned to Ios. I had first gone to that magical Greek island in 1972, when I completely fell in love with it. So, in 1979, when I once again disembarked at its tiny harbour and climbed the seemingly countless white steps that lead to its exquisite chora (village), I was all the more shocked to discover that the once quiet, tranquil island now reverberated to the sound of drunken, half-naked young British yobs fighting, shouting and vomiting on practically every corner. I didn’t linger, but ran down the steps to the harbour and jumped desperately on to the same boat I had arrived on, just as it was leaving.


However, that experience didn’t put me off Greece; since then I’ve discovered countless other quiet, peaceful, beautiful islands, whose names I refuse to divulge, even if I’ve have to go further and further afield to find them. Now, as spring approaches once again, I’m longing to go back to a country, which, amazingly enough, despite my having been to more than forty islands, I can’t say I really know. The fact is, there’s still so much there for me to discover; for example, I’ve never been to the Pelopenese, or the Meteora (the hanging monasteries), far less Mount Olympus or Mount Athos.

Nor do I know Germany well, although I feel I’m entitled to express some kind of opinion about it. This is because, when I lived in Amsterdam, I had a German girl-friend for two years who I used to visit regularly in Cologne. At that time, I also used to regularly visit my sister, who has been also married to a German for the last forty years, and still lives with him and their three children in their house just over the Dutch border. Last but not least, my partner for the last twenty-three years, Gabriella, is also German and I regularly visit him in Gottingen, where he lives. However, what I say about Germany has nothing to do with my relationship with any of them, because I love my nephews and nieces dearly, Gabriella is my soul-mate, who dislikes the same aspects of Germany that I do (which is why she came to Britain in the first place), and her father is a wonderful man who has become part of my family.

Nevertheless, despite the aspects of the Germans that I dislike, Germany is still an intriguing and, in places, very attractive country, and I’m continually shocked to learn how few British people go there, or know anything about it other than the usual clichés about beer, sauerkraut, football and lederhosen. Whenever I fly to Frankfurt with Gabriella, and travel with her by train to Gottingen to visit her 85-year-old father, who lives in the latter, I am struck by the beauty of the ubiquitous dark green forests, the dreamy villages and unspoilt, undulating valleys that slide past outside the window. Then, once I get to Gottingen, and start exploring the surrounding area while she’s with her father, I’m bowled over by just how beautiful towns such as Celle and Goslar are, many of which have more fachwerkhausen (black and white wooden houses) in their main street than all the equivalent towns in Britain — such as York, which is so proud of its Shambles — put together.

But it’s to Greece that my heart belongs, and even if I can’t go there because of my impending hip operation, in my head I’m already on a ferry chugging across those glittering seas, with unknown islands shimmering in a white haze on the horizon, while, below decks, in the restaurant, tall Orthodox priests stroke their long white beards, little old women dressed in black remonstrate with noisy grandchildren, and hunched, wizened men shout and gesticulate wildly at each other — seemingly having a furious argument — while, in reality, all they’re doing is talking about the weather.

On a love for swans

As I have grown older, I have developed a great love for swans. I first realized this when I started jogging round Inverleith pond early every morning, when the world was quiet, still, and the sun to the east had not yet heaved itself above the countless spires and towers still silhouetted against Edinburgh’s magnificent skyline. At first, there were twenty of them that lived on the pond throughout the year. For some time, I wondered what it was about them that appealed to me so much until I realized that, apart from their long acknowledged beauty and gracefulness, it was because they reminded me so much of humans. They were so nosy, so curious and so hopeful as they loitered hopefully around at the edge of the pond, or steamed — like a line of white battleships in formation — to be first to arrive when someone appeared with a bag of bread at the other end of the pond. Yet they were so silent, even when one of them, chased by another, heaved itself like a Concord into the air with a flapping of huge white wings before, using its two feet as breaking gear, it would land with a huge scoosh on the opposite end of the pond.

Attending, for the first time, Modern Greek evening classes also increased my love for swans. For over four decades I had been often been going to different Greek islands, where I had picked up a smattering — albeit ungrammatical — of Greek. Now, in a belated realization that I loved that country and its cerulean seas, dazzling white villages and yellow and blue caiques more than anywhere I have ever been to, I thought it was time to tackle the language and learn it seriously. As a result, I became increasingly interested in Greek mythology, where I found the myth of Cycnus — the root, of course, of the English word ‘cygnet’ — especially fascinating. According to one account, he was the son of Poseidon, who had been abandoned by his mother, Calyce or Scamandrodice, on a deserted seashore, until he was rescued by fishermen who named him Cycnus ‘swan’ because they saw a swan flying over him. According to another, he was said to have unusually white skin and fair hair, which was why he received the name ‘swan’. Whatever, when he grew up, he supported the Trojans in the Trojan War, during which, because he was invulnerable to spear and sword attack, he killed a thousand Greeks, according to Ovid, and became a Trojan hero. Then, at last, Achilles leapt ashore and throttled him, before his father, Poseidon, transformed him into a swan.

One spring, two of the swans, which had nested in thick clumps of reeds at the far end of the pond, had five cygnets, and I would pause to watch as they paddled furiously after their parents at the first sign of danger. Soon I felt quite proprietorial towards them; they were so vulnerable and such easy targets for the voracious sea-gulls which hovered hopefully overhead, ready to snatch any cygnet foolish enough to stray beyond the protective beaks of its parents. Then, sure enough, one day I was saddened to notice that there were only four cygnets, but over the next few months I would watch as they grew bigger and bigger and their feathers changed from grey, to brown to white, until they were no longer ugly, grey-feathered helpless little creatures but transformed into the fully fledged, elegant swans that we know so well, and love so much, from ballets such as ‘Swan Lake’.

At the same time I watched as two bad-tempered swans would chase after all the others, snapping at them with angrily with their yellow beaks. At first, their behaviour so annoyed me that, had they been humans, I would have remonstrated with them for such bullying behaviour. However, one day, next to a sign saying ‘Do not feed the swans white bread’, another sign suddenly appeared, warning passers-by that adult swans with cygnets could be very aggressive. It was only then I realized the two swans must be the parents of the cygnets.

from http://www.swanswans.com

from http://www.swanswans.com

They were astonishing to watch; though there were only two of them, they would steam furiously, their necks coiled like irate cobras and wings arched threateningly, across the pond to intimidate the other swans congregated for safety at the other end of the pond, before they chased them out the water. Once the flock had hastily clambered onto dry land, the two swans would sail back to the clumps of reeds at the other end, until the rest of the flock dared slip back into the water. Then the two swans would once again steam fiercely across the pond and the whole procedure would be repeated once more, leaving me wondering how only two swans could intimidate such a large flock.

After I damaged my hip and could no longer go running, I continued going to the pond every lunchtime, although this time on my bicycle on my way for a coffee at nearby Fettes Health club. Once again, I would watch them as they glided imperiously through the water or waddled round the edge of the pond, to gobble at grass, hiss malevolently at foolish dogs, and even eat from the tentative, outstretched hands of children. Then, to my dismay, their number, worn down by the on-going aggression of the two swans, began to slowly but surely diminish, until there were ten, then eight, then six, then only three left — the two swans, and a fully grown cygnet. However, one Saturday, to my delight, a new flock of swans suddenly arrived from out of the blue. Looking for a new home in which to spend the summer, they were obviously unaware of the reputation of the two swans, but after spending the afternoon being chased out of the pond, the next day they had gone.

Now there are only the three swans left — I have since learned that the council rehoused the original flock to the pond next to Linlithgow Palace — and Inverleith pond, to me, looks forsaken and forlorn. Of course, on a sunny day, the water still glitters like myriads of sparkling emeralds, and querulous seagulls and quacking ducks still float around lazily like toys in a enormous bathtub, but I am left to nurse my feelings of enormous loss and regret, along with my memories of how the pond was once graced by those most elegant of creatures, which reminded me so much of a crowd of reincarnated souls, and what I would like to be when I die.

On cycling in Edinburgh

Nothing infuriates me more than riding a bike in Edinburgh. This is because I compare it to when I lived in Holland for eleven years, where riding a bike is almost the normal mode of transport and children are almost born in the saddle. Forty-four years ago, when I lived in Amsterdam, believe it or not there were not only segregated bicycle lines and special traffic lights for cyclists, but the latter were set to give priority to cyclists. And woe betides anyone there who cut up a cyclist in the streets! Instead, here in backward, provincial Edinburgh, where riding a bike must rank as one of the most suicidal activities it is possible to undertake, attitudes towards cyclists are positively Neanderthal, and where to ride a bike is to be seen at best as some sort activity to be smiled at, or at worst, an activity in which only losers indulge in. This is despite the fact that cycling cuts down pollution, reduces traffic jams and is undoubtedly good for the health, and the government — though they continue to refuse to invest in cycle lanes — have been encouraging people to swop their cars for bikes for over ten years.

Yet, as our cities reach gridlock, and climate change accelerates due to carbon monoxide emissions, people continue to treat cyclists as if they’re some of abnormal aberration. What can the reason for this be? It is not as if the British don’t go abroad on holiday to the continent, where they can’t fail to notice that everywhere in Holland, Germany and Nordic countries such as Denmark and Sweden, there are thousands upon thousands of bikes thronging every station; indeed, last time I was in Berlin, I saw that they were even building a double storey park for bikes!

Nor is it only students there who ride bikes on the continent, it is lawyers, teachers. In Denmark, even the Prime Minister rides a bike. But ask anyone in Britain why they don’t follow suit, the reply is ‘Oh, it’s too hilly here’, or ‘the streets weren’t built for it’, etc. But where are the hills in Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds and practically every British city? Nor did I know that the towns of Gottingen, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki and Munster etc were build for bikes. No, the answer unfortunately lies elsewhere. First, it is down to that perennially British problem — lack of environmental awareness in particular and lack of education in general. Because the less educated you are, the less likely you are to ride a bike and to ride a bike here is to be seen as some sort of middle-class wanker clogging up the roads. The undeniable fact is that it is working-class White Van Men who shout at you and cut you up.

But there are other reasons. Perhaps the most important of these is the sad British preoccupation with everything from America, where the car reigns supreme of course, and to ride a bike is, if anything, seen as a greater sign of insanity than in Britain. Indeed, try riding a bike in Los Angeles or almost any other city and you may be arrested. It is no accident that Britain, as in so many others areas (such as, on the railways, going for oil in the Fifties instead of electricity, unlike practically every other country in Western Europe), slavishly followed America, as if so many other fields, in adopting the car culture lock stock and barrel.

The extent to which life is made difficult for cyclists in Edinburgh is astonishing. First, there are the cobbles in the New Town, which haven’t been maintained for decades, with the result that if you’re not careful and you get your wheel stuck in the huge gaps between them, you’re likely to find yourself lying in the gutter. Then there the people who, if you leave your bike chained to their railings, leave rude irate notes pinned to your bike saying that you are upsetting the local residents and that if you continue to leave your bike there it will be junked.

On the island of Harris

I’ve just got back from the island of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. If you live in Scotland, and you love the sea, islands, boats and remoteness, you don’t have to go to the other ends of the world to find one of the most beautiful places on earth. Nor is there anywhere else on earth like it. The mountains in Nepal are higher and more magnificent. The villages in Greece are more beautiful. The skies are bluer in Italy. But the feeling you get in Harris is unique. Nowhere is the landscape more rugged, more craggy, more rocky. Nowhere do you feel that you can travel millions of years back in time, nowhere do you feel so totally insignificant, and that the forces of nature will always prevail. But, most of all, there are few places on earth where you feel you are at the end of something, because here, when you look out to the west, you realise that everything is all behind, the cities, the motorways, the crowds, the skyscrapers of the European landmass, and that in front, where the sun is setting in all its splendour, there is only 3000 miles of the empty ocean stretching to the very curve of the horizon.

And somehow you know that the inhabitants sense this too, because their concerns are not what has happened on the London Stock Exchange, but what the weather’s going to be like tomorrow, the latest shipping forecast, why the ferry from Skye is late and whether Billy is playing in the village hall on Saturday. Not that they are insular, backward and out of touch with the world. Go into many of the crofts or little art galleries that dot the southern part of the island, and you will be astonished, for example, to see the state of the art kitchens.. More, it’s just that their chief concerns are different and, some would say, perhaps more real than those of the teeming millions trapped further south in their consumer lifestyles, and with their celebrity culture and materialistic obsessions. For a breath of fresh air, do yourself a favour and tune into BBC Alba to see what preoccupies people here. Because what does it matter, here on the very edge of the continent, if the Middle East is in flames, terrorists have blown up fifty people in Kabul, the British Prime Minister, with his delusions of grandeur, is issuing yet another warning to President Putin to mend his ways as if he is a naughty schoolboy? Because although such events as who is going to win the sheep-dog trials, the competition of the fiddlers in the village hall, or the singers preparing for the Mod may seem so pathetically parochial as to be fit only for the subject of smug mirth and ridicule, these are real events, which affect everyone’s lives. And here, anyway, you know that you can’t do anything about the state of the world, and that the seasons will come and go, the sun will continue to rise in the east and set in the west, generations will be born and die, and that, although everything will change inexorably, the illusion will persist that everything will always be the same.


On the dangers of forcing things in yoga

Am seriously grounded, physically, as have badly damaged my hip as a result of overdoing hip-opening exercises doing yoga. It was my fault, as I ignored warnings not to force them to open. It’s been so bad that I can hardly walk, and, sure that I was going to need a hip replacement, have had an X-Ray at the Western General and been up to the Royal Infirmary. To my astonishment, the former said that there was only standard wear and tear on the hip-joint – amazing, given that 25 years ago my doctor said that he’d never seen anyone so young with such ‘hammered hip-joints’ – the arthritis that had been diagnosed 25 years ago, and the latter recommended only that I desist from doing the exercises given me by a physiotherapist I went to see, and, at the same time, he would arrange for me to have a steroid injection. So am hoping against hope that I will have yet another ‘get out of jail free’ card, and that once again, my body, which has never failed to do what I asked of it won’t let me down. The result of this has been that I haven’t been able to go anywhere, and instead, am in a curious no-man’s land, where I’m not doing anything other than just waiting to see if things are going to improve.

It’s a curious feeling, as I’ve always felt that I could take off somewhere whenever I wanted – which of course is now out. But that’s not the only reason I’m just sitting things out, and not writing any more; I’m no longer interested in writing travel articles, the freelance market for which has almost disappeared, on top of which there aren’t many places left that I’d really like to go to. And then, finally, am somewhat worn out by all the hard work involved in doing Reports from Beyond and In Search of Landfall, which took nearly seven years to produce.

To pass time, I’m watching a lot of television. Those who say there’s nothing decent on the box are deceived; it just means that they don’t watch BBC 4 or, to a lesser extent, BBC 2. This must surely be the best channel there has ever been, including Channel Four when it first went on air before it went disgracefully downmarket and now simply caters for the lowest of the low. There’s hardly an evening goes by when there isn’t something really worth watching on BBC 4, starting with the excellent World News at 7pm. Then there’s Entarteted Kunst, the fantastic Scandinavian thrillers on Saturday night The Killing, Borgen, Wallander and The Bridge, the Italian Inspector Montalbano, the History of Art in Three Colours, a History of British Art, The Blue Planet, the wonderful programmes of Andrew Graham-Dixon such as The Art of China, Artists of War, The Art of Germany, The Art of Eternity, Lost Cities of the Ancients, The Life of Birds, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Great Scientists in Their Own Words, Treasures of the Anglo-Saxons, Under Milk Wood, The Viking Sagas, History of Greek Theatre, Ancient Greece – The Greatest Show on Earth. What’s not to like?