Monday 31 March 2014

My World Rainbow

The black stone walls encrusted with grey lichen line the fields and roadside verges of my youth

The red lion rampart of the Wallace banner flies amidst the dahlias of my childhood home

Necklaces of silver foil milk tops lie piled up in the kitchen awaiting school on Monday

Bees buzz round the saucer of red currant jelly sitting out to set on the doorstep

The sphagnum green bog squelches under my hiker’s boot

which later strives to avoid the vivid blue Gentian cracking the grey limestone of the Irish Burren

The sun kissed yellow of a daffodil defiantly heralds spring in Christchurch’s park after the earthquake

The delicate pink briar rose scrabbles wildly over the once formal box hedges of an unattended English garden

The new day serenely glides in across the turquoise blue coral lagoon of Makemo Atol

The orange sands of Moul N’Aga move secretly and silently in their timeless stroll across the Algerian Tadrart

The snarling gales of the Roaring Forties are smothered by the molten lead grey quiet of the storm’s eye

while the purple twilight of an Antarctic sky dances like a sugar plum fairy across the peaked snow

Sunday 30 March 2014

Under the Frangipani by Mia Couto

Under the Frangipani


Under the Frangipani

by Mia Couto, David Brookshaw

In the edition I have, the short intro, entitled White body, black soul, is written by Henning Mankell. I found it interesting in general terms because having read Couto's work Mankell said he was then surprised on meeting him to find an African of European parents, because "one of the most challenging things about Mia Couto's work is how profoundly it manifests an African sense of how a good story should be told". He writes that African storytelling is characterised by an "absolute challenge to the chronological structure", describing Couto as a "restless drifter between the past and present", that African stories makes a less rigid distinction between the past and the present than is found in Western writings. The second point he makes is that Couto "explores the African spirit world, which not only allows the dead to meet and even inhabit the living, but also accepts metamorphosis between people and other living creatures because they are interrelated". 

This novel is superficially a mystery surrounding the murder of Vastsome Excellency, the Director of the old people’s refuge at the fort of Sao Nicolau. Moreover the establishment of the police intend to kills off the inspector sent to investigate, the residents of the refuge do not trust this incomer into their midst and until they do they cannot help him either the solve the murder or escape his fate. The “pet of the dead”, the halakavuma or anteater, intervenes and encourages the dead carpenter, Ermelindo Mucango, to become a shipoco, a night spirit, and take up residence in the body of Izidine Naita, the investigating police officer.  From the beginning there is uncertainty surrounding the death of the Director and Izidine is given conflicting accounts from each of the residents, all claiming to have killed the Director and variously portraying him as a cruel bully, sexual predator, corrupt official and generally all-round despicable character. Izidine struggles to gain their confidence as he tries to piece together the truth of the matter.

Initially we are told that Ermelindo died far from home and has not been buried according to the traditions of his people. Instead his grave is under a frangipani tree on the terrace of refuge. His body is being exhumed because the government want a national hero from his tribe. With no desire to be a hero, he consults the halakavima about what to do and becomes a shipoco to relive his death and to set the record straight. Likewise we are told that the Director had received a promotion and the helicopter coming to take him and his wife away from the Refuge saw his body on the rocks as they made their approach. But when the crew went to investigate, there was no body.

Izidine flies in, unbeknowingly carrying Ermelindo. His first interview is with Navaia Caetano, who volunteers that he murdered the Director. He tells how suffering from premature age, he was a child who grew old the moment he was born, which meant his mother never felt the present of her child and could not suckle him . To live he has to be a storyteller of lies.  Finally he came to the refuge where the witch, Little Miss No, said she could help if he let his childhood run free allowing his mother to find solace in motherhood. As he did the fellow residents realised he would die and tried to revive and ensure the child’s salvation, in an exorcism like ceremony. The Director interrupted the ritual, but after he left, they finished the ceremony and extolling him to “kill that sonofabitch” helped Navaia to the door complete with dagger in hand. Curious, thinks the reader, shot or stabbed?

The second confession comes from the Old Portuguese, the white man, Domingos Mourao. who has been bullied by the Director and witnesses him hitting his wife. In the third confession, the Old Gaffer confess to having killed the Director by smashing his head in and smothering him after he witness an attempted/ assault on Marta. The fourth confession comes from Miss No who says she poisoned the Director. Marta, the refuge nurse, hands Izidine a letter written by Ernestina, the Director’s wife, who tells how the Director was corrupted by war, stole the inmates supplies and refused to let anyone leave the fort on the return helicopter. Party to this secretion of supplies in the storehouse was their now dead servant Salufo Tuco.  Salufo had left the fort once for a period of two months, but disillusioned by the world he saw outside returned only to be beaten by the Director when he had tried to open up the storeroom where the stolen supplies were secreted.

The way Couto constructs the novel, using the confessions and ramblings of the old residents to confuse both the policeman and the reader, forces both to reassess their assumptions, to confront the question of what is the truth and to look at everything afresh. Without any real evidence for the murder, Izidine (African by birth, educated in Europe, with little practical experiences of his people’s culture and still an outsider to them)  is in a position of having to rely on their testimonies, which at first are incomprehensible to him. Trying to find the truth (as defined by Western terms, namely who killed the Director and why) becomes less important with the realisation that “The crime that’s been committed here isn’t the one you’re trying to solve.” The residents’ confessions are mixtures of African spiritualism (such as a woman who turns to water at night, Little Miss No the witch; the storm snake or wamulamba), senile dementia (meandering through changes of topic, reminiscences of youth, reliving of youthful desires in dreams of seducing Marta and the Director’s wife), and joke playing on the gullibility of an outsider (dressing Izidine up in a woman’s dress in a false ceremonial ritual). All serving to confuse, and misdirect away from the real truth.

A closer read can reveal metaphors within the text and its characters. For example, the Old Gaffer relates an interesting encounter with the Old Portuguese. He has gone to cut down the frangipani and gets into a fight with the Old Portuguese who abhors this act, although the two end up laughing with and at each other. Their humorous banter is hugely metaphorical for the battle between Freelimo and the state. The Old Gaffer speculates that although the whites always thought they won by strength of arms, he doubts this, thinking it was due to the Mozambicans thinking the white man’s spirits were stringer than their own, their spells more powerful than theirs, and even their stories more enchanting. I wondered whether this last one is a reference to Christianity?

Marta, also educated by the Portugese, is a survivor. If we are to believe her story she had been sent to a re-education camp to mend her ways after being charged with being a loose woman. She is also the revealer, the unraveller, the waypointer  for Izidine. She gives a different perspective on the Director as the man who saved many when the Infirmary burnt, as a man who had given the best years of his life to the Revolution only to feel betrayed when its utopian ideals become corrupted. For, as she finally reveals to Izidine, the culprit is war, implying the victim is Mozambique itself - the Mozambique tradition of  magic, of family values of respect for elders (personified as the old residents at the fort) is dying as corruption spreads throughout post revolution, post war, black society challenging the revolution’s ideals and society’s traditional values resulting in the disillusionment of old soldiers (like Salufo Tuco), corrupting the judiciary (the Director), and the establishment (the police force).  The writing of Marta’s confession resonated strongly with me  “Violence changes priorities”, “War creates another cycle of time. Our lives are no longer measured by years or seasons. Or by the harvests, famine or floods.War established the cycle of blood. We start saying “before the war, after the war!” " War swallows up the dead and devours its survivors”.

SPOILER…The residents finally come to the decision to trust the policeman, believing him to be a good man working in a bad organisation.  They confess that the store room covers a cache of arms, left over from the war. These had been traded by the Director to the helicopter crew who shot him after the residents had buried the weapons in attempt to stop another war. Finally, as the helicopter returns, Ermalindo re-emerges to get Izidine away and as they hide in the rocks by the shoreline he has a reawakening “ I had crowned myself with cowardice. When it was time to fight for my country I had refused. I had nailed planks when we were building a nation” instead of helping ”deliver a world in which a man could be respected just for living his life”. The havakavuma creates a great storm wamulambo, bringing down the helicopter. During this, the quay Ermelindo had built saved the residents, who emerge to find the refuge restored and rebuilt anew. Only the frangipani tree is a charred skeleton. Ermelindo, ultimately the hero,  returns to the soil, renews the frangipani, and along with the old residents succumbs to a peaceful “slumber deeper then death itself” leaving the survivors Marta and Izidine in the new world.

ashramblings verdict 4* I’d loved to have read this with more than an internet search of Mozambican political history to help me along. That said, I still found it a fascinating and satisfying read, very reminiscent of the magical realism prominent in Latin American literature, complete with the political overtones



He gasped for air, struggling to breathe. The bag tightened, driving further and further into his mouth with each gulp. His nose had become unfit for purpose. His lungs fought to get adequate air. They strained for the oxygen required to live till the next morning. If there would be one. Long ago he’d told them all he knew, and more. Now he had nothing to give, nothing to say. The questions had long since stopped making any sense. When they came now he couldn't talk. All his body wanted to do was to gulp and gasp, shudder in shock, shake and convulse when the bag was removed, the garrotte loosened, the plastic replaced by air.

His sense of smell had disappeared long ago. The putrid aromas, a mixture of blood, vomit, urine, semen, undoubtedly still pervaded the room. A hell hole of bodily biles that even the gaol rats avoided. Now there was nothing in his stomach, nothing in his bowels, nothing in his bladder. Soon there would be nothing in his lungs and he would collapse into unconsciousness only to be slapped, hit, beaten back into life. How many punches would it take this time? At first he could tell by counting his bruises. Now he was all bruised, one black and blue remnant of the man he used to be. He’d wake up back in his cell not knowing how long he’d been in interrogation, how long he’d been knocked out for, how long he’d been asleep. The calendar he’d scratched on the wall with each food delivery was now useless. The food had stopped coming. The bucket in the corner had stopped overflowing. Evaporation he supposed. His body was shutting down and he no longer added to its contents.

All signs of human dignity had gone, days, weeks ago. Now all signs of life were disappearing too. Gone were his attempts to keep fit, performing press-ups, running on the spot. Gone too were the mental agility exercises he’d devised for himself – reciting poems, singing songs, recalling faces of primary school classmates, compiling lists – all Humphrey Bogart films, all books by Marquez, football cup winners, A to Z of plants, of animals, of countries of the world. Anything to survive and be able once again to see his wife and child. Currently, his brain concerned its efforts on the now herculean task of maintaining the autonomic lymphatic processes endeavouring to keep up as wounds failed to heal, as broken bones failed to mend. His brain had no resources to spare for thinking, for wishing, for dreaming, for hoping. Yet curiously his ears still heard their screams and he knew they heard his. Did screaming help you breathe? Only the living scream: the dead are silent. He’d be silent soon. At first the screams terrified him. They haunted his cell time, stopped him from sleeping. Noise personified fear. What were they doing to that woman? She sounded so young. Then it was silence that terrified him. Was he the only one left?

He had mentally resigned himself to welcome death but his rebellious body was not on the same page. Death did not come for him. Only the guards, again and again. He’d become terrified of living, terrified of surviving the next interrogation, interrogations he knew had become an excuse for brutality, part of the initiation of younger members of the guard corps. The faces of the novices no longer registered in his damaged eyes. Their blows were no longer distinguishable from those of men more proficient in the art. He knew that when he no longer gave the elder guards their kicks as they laughed and joked at the young ones as they experienced instigating torture for the first time, that he’d be left in this god forsaken cell, forgotten about by all, to die alone, to slip away into oblivion and become food for a different set of rats.

© Sheila Ash 30 March 2014

Saturday 22 March 2014

Moul N’Aga

Moul N'AgaMoul N'Aga2

The bright orange sands of Moul N’Aga move secretly and silently in their timeless stroll across the southern Algerian landscape, leaving a mathematically perfect curve which snakes its way downhill like the sensual side of a sleeping woman. You want to touch this place, to embrace its awesome scale, to roll in its folds and breathe in its being.

One climbs because it is there, the soft underfoot sapping energy and testing calves. Atop, the cloudless sky, a bright blue, contrasts like some Andy Warhol backdrop to the view across the sand seas stretching endlessly below. The leeward side is cold, hidden from the incessant heat of the desert day. The windward side air chars the inside of your nose sucking out your skin’s moisture and toxins in a ritual purification reminiscent of a health spa. Its invading warmth caresses you dispelling anxiety and easing pain in a comforting heavenward transition.

The more than gentle touch of the wind belies the prospect of turmoil. Spraying grains cut your face necessitating a raising of your tagelmust as your irritated, still exposed, eyes register the distant curtain beginning to close in, calling you to descend now before the sand fogs out the sky and the visible world shrinks. Beckoning from below a welcoming glass of sweet green tea securely round a dancing fire before the sun sleeps.

Friday 14 March 2014

Have you not found my shoe yet?



forensics on scene

yellow tape cordons

shallow woodland grave

At long last, now he will be found

the bastard who did this to me.


with brush and trowel

gently moving soil

revealing her all

I loved that dress, it was new

It’s now in shreds, oh what a mess!


camera clicking

flashes flickering

blackbirds twittering

Be careful with those size 10s

my right hand might be important.


systematic log

tag it and bag it

label it and pack it

Well done, that’s right, only one earing

Have you not found my other shoe yet?


on the lab’s cold table

scalpel removes skin

scratched from his head

I’m sorry about the chips mum

I fought him dad, truly I did


witnesses interviewed

statements filed

earing found in car

thanks Mr. Woo from the Chinese

who saw a stranger lurking

Wednesday 12 March 2014


Reclining Woman, 1951. The Henry Moore Foundation

At our Creative Writing Group our tutor this week placed several picture postcards on a table and asked each of us to pick one within 30 second. I picked this one, Henry Moore’s Reclining Woman, 1951.  We then had 10 minutes to write something inspired by this. I wrote this short piece entitled Inclination


Silky and smoothly

rounded and flowing

a curvaceous recliner

laid out on a plinth.


Highland and lowlands

valleys and dales

a mountainous moorland

calling me home.

Monday 10 March 2014

The alley

It was an anonymous alleyway. A mere 6 feet wide, each side bleak brick without doors or windows. The left hand side reached up 3 storeys blocking out the world southside. The 18th century windows tax had put paid to any portals which lacked a view. Their bricked up outline was still visible on each floor. The right, the side of the now derelict town cinema, strove similarly heavenward. Two tall, unbroken, slightly bulging, aged walls. No gates opened onto this rear passage. There was no place for anyone to hide. No place for anything to be hidden.

It was a forlorn, empty place, not even a wheely bin in sight, nothing for birds or rats. When rain fell, its moisture stayed here for days, the sun’s rays touching it all too briefly. This dampness fed the only living inhabitants the lichens and moss which encrusted the north facing wall, turning its once red brickwork into a mosaic of orange and green, black and grey.

It was a dark foreboding place. Even on a clear day, the sky was only barely visible if one stood mid-alley and looked up. At night, the meadows end was ominously black whilst the town end held only the faint flicker from a street light – not one of those modern solar fluorescent LED jobs, but an old fashioned box lantern type reminiscent of Victorian stage plays. Its timeless elegance stood on the far pavement, squarely facing on to the alley, like some sentry on duty. Behind it more modern relics had been parked so long they had become part of the unchanging and so unnoticed townscape wasteland.

On entering the alley, Mac always felt chilled. A claustrophobia steadily invaded his body and seeped into his bones sending chills down his spine. His black serge soaked up the dank night air. Time stood still every night for his 600 metre walk. Two minutes, which felt more like an inescapable ten. The first time he’d done this beat he’d walked it from town end to meadows end. By god that was a cheerless place. So eerie he’d reversed his beat the next night and now only ever walked it in the other direction. The Victorian lantern acted like a lighthouse beacon, guiding him home.

Tonight, with the mist and earlier snowfall, the lane was completely white, like the train of a bridal veil. His were the first footprints of the night. The lantern’s slightly orange light shone softly, like some ghostly religious iconary in the night sky, a virginal lorelei beckoning him seductively to enter her boudoir. For a moment he was transfixed, caught in an ethereal dreamland. And then he saw it. Right in the middle of the lane.

Monday 3 March 2014

Northern Lights

Photo Attribution: Brocken Inaglory

The northern skies came south last night

wondrous celestial curtains

dancing like Salome’s seven veils

across the firmament

as we stood gazing at the kaleidoscopic treat

Strident against the black infinity

bright greens and reds  their hues intense and rich 

yet as fine as gosamer

made manifest this strange ethereal apparition

as we stood hypnotized by the marvels of nature


Last weeks home work from our Creative Writing tutor was to attempt to write a tanka. This is a Japanese poetry form which in its truest form consists of 31 syllables, spread over 5 lines, in a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable construction. I found this quite  hard. Anyway here’s my attempts.

unending white sand

surrounds a desert island

the turquoise blue sea

caresses coconut palms

no footsteps except mine


the tea is brewing

biscuits are on the plate

welcoming my guests

happy conversations

warming body and soul

ghost stories retold

around the roaring fire

darkness outside

the wind blows the windows creek

scared listeners scream

Sunday 2 March 2014

Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo

Private Peaceful. Michael Morpurgo

Private Peaceful


Michael Morpurgo

Idyllic memories of childhood pre WW1 are recounted through the night by an under age soldier in France as he waits for the hour of death to come at 6AM. To begin with you are not sure exactly where Tommo Peaceful is, as he lies there recalling his father’s death, his mother, his brothers Charlie and Big Joe, the love of his life Molly who has married Charlie and their schooldays and working life together before they joined up and were shipped off to fight. After a few chapters you realise he is at the front, and for a short time you assume it is his death which is approaching perhaps anticipating some big push over the barricades. But, no, it is the brother’s. One brother paying the ultimate price for staying with the other. The carnage of the trenches and the horrors of the gas provide the ultimate contrast to his memories of country  life. Ultimately, this is a book about brotherly love, about doing what is right irrespective of the consequences – with a nice touch across the lines when the German soldier spares Peaceful’s life. This book will grab you from the first chapter “Five Past Ten” all the way through to its last “One Minute to Six” and provide a night to remember.

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them”

Extract from ‘For The Fallen’ by Laurence Binyon

ashramblings verdict 5*  quite simply a great book, deeply moving and poignant.