Thursday, 31 May 2012

The other side of me

SOMETIMES something will occur in a person's life that will define them and delineate a place for them on the atlas of history.
There is a story in my family from my paternal grandmother's side that my great great grandmother fled China during some revolution or other and boarded a boat to British Guiana as Guyana was then called.
In the pandemonium of fleeing refugees on the wharf, she allegedly lost a son and the boat slipped from the harbour without him.
This was only a family story and has never been corroborated and, as the generations passed, the story probably changed, leaving only a residue of truth ... a Chinese whisper in this case.
Having a nose through the internet a few days ago, I found her: my great great grandmother who they called Loo Shee (or Lo She) or, as she was known after her marriage to my great great grandfather, Rebecca Lee-A-Tak.
Loo Shee was  apparently from a wealthy Manchurian family and lived in the Guangdong province in Southern China (probably in Canton, now Guanzhou) in the mid-1800s during the Qing Dynasty.
This was a time of civil unrest, where the Opium Wars had devastated the country, feudalism caused starvation and imperial corruption was rife.
It was also known as the Golden Age of Chinese culture, fed by Confucianism, where centuries of war and repression led to egalitarian ideologies and eventually an end to the age of empires.
It took a peasant Hong Xiuquan, claiming to be the brother of Jesus Christ, to awaken the sleeping dragon of courage in the hearts of the peasant population, and the Tai Ping revolution was born.
Tai Ping ideologies had one goal: to rid themselves of the ruling powers by annihilating them, burning their homes and redistributing the spoils to the poor. The armies of the Kingdom of Heaven rose and declared war on the emperor.
This was one of the bloodiest and most brutal internal conflicts in history. During 14 years of violence, the rebellion claimed the lives of 20 million people.
But, fortunately, not that of my great great grandmother.
The family story says that, because her feet were bound, she had to be carried onto the boat. Whatever method she used to get on the ship, she boarded The Chapman on 27 February 1861 to British Guiana, on 9 June of that year.
During the voyage she married a man called U-A-Ho.
After his death, great great granny married another refugee called Lee-A-Tak and the rest they say, to quote an old cliché, is history.
What a tale and even more poignant is that this is part of my story: a chapter that had not been read until now.
There's a piece about her here. The picture above shows her at the grand old age of 80 (note trappings of Western civilisation!) and I think she is magnificent. Look at her beautiful tiny feet.
Loo Shee's life in Guyana is probably well-documented. I know, for example, that her descendants were some of the most influential and successful people in the country and many of them are my aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews scattered across the Americas and various parts of the globe.
It is doubtful, however, that I will ever know whether Lee Shoo left a son on the wharf. I would hate to think that she was forced to endure such pain but guess that she probably had already been through quite a lot before her first step onto the Chapman.
Most of the records were possibly burned during Tai Ping and the ones that survived, if any, were probably destroyed alongside the 16 to 45 million people by Chairman Mao and his Revolutionary Army in the Great Leap Forward.
I intend to find out as much as I can of Loo Shee and get properly acquainted with my long lost relation that I already feel close to.
But was she a gentle, kind woman or a hard-nosed inscrutable alpha female? Did she nag? Did her feet remain bound? Was she happy?
I will keep a space in my imagination to tell the remainder of Loo Shee's story and a place in my heart for the rest.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

A beautiful truth

WRITING all day for a living sounds like the ideal job for an author.
It's what you write, however, that really matters: facts are for work; imagination is for pleasure.
Churning out press releases; cobbling together stories from garbled notes; finding catchy headlines; and adding captions to out-of-focus photographs all within strangling deadlines is the grim reality of contemporary newspaper journalism.
Personal voice is gagged by 6Ws in an inverted pyramid and there is little room for creativity within a 250-word limit.
Good journalists should only be interested in the facts.
Good fiction writers, on the other hand, should allow imagination to light the way and ever let the fancy roam.
Which leads in nicely to what I really wanted to blog about today.
It was with some trepidation that I watched Bright Star on the TV a few days ago. It worried me that I wouldn't like the actor that portrayed the man I have known and loved since I was 14.
John Keats
John Keats gave me a passion for words. He was the single most profound inspiration to the creative writer inside me that I met the same time as I found him.
Keats opened up a whole new world of words for me: he taught me that they could be beautiful. They could describe scenes, thoughts, emotions and inanimate objects in a way that made the heart soar and fingers tremble against the page.
I learned that a breeze could sigh; a Greek pot could be an "unravish'd bride of quietness"; and the nightingale was immortal.
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty". I don't believe that Keats intended this statement to be a conundrum or even an oxymoron. Erudite scholars of literature and philosophy have been pondering on the meaning of those five little words for almost 200 years, but I think I understand what he was trying to say.
Truth is more important than fact: anyone can churn the latter out. It is the inquisitive, creative mind that takes a long, deep gaze beyond the surface to find the truth and the beauty beyond will reveal itself.
For a writer, there is no more effective way to achieve this than through the "viewless wings" of the imagination.
Words should not only touch the mind; they should go through the soul.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Eilean Donan Castle, Loch Duich
I am, without doubt, the world's worst blogger.
Not only do I fail to blog regularly, or at all, I didn't realise that I had a spam bucket and that a few really lovely comments about my blog had been turned into a pre-cooked meat product of dubious nutritional value.
For those who had taken the time and effort to write your wonderful words of encouragement, please accept my apologies. It was my belief that no one read my blog but now you have inspired me to keep it going more regularly.
Thank you anonymous. Here's a picture of Eilean Donan Castle on Loch Duich (where Highlander was filmed and one of the most iconic Scottish vistas) as a token of my gratitude.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Burns in brief - A humble tribute to Scotland's beloved bard

Burns sculpture in New Cumnock
 by the talented Kirti Mandir
WE HAIL him as Scotland's favourite son, our National Poet, the People’s Poet, the Poet of Humanity, Robden of Solway Firth, the Bard of Ayrshire and in Scotland as simply The Bard.

In the mid 1700s, they called him the Poet Ploughman, and he quite liked that title, for it recognised him as something more than a peasant – he had recognition as a writer and an audience that wished to hear his words.

Times were harsh for the gardener’s son born in Alloway on 25 January 1759. Despite a brief appearance in mainstream education, his father had the foresight to educate him at home, teaching him maths, languages and English.

By his late teens Robert Burns was fluent in French, spoke Latin, studied philosophy, politics, geography, theology and the Bible. He was an accomplished mathematician and in later years added significantly to his impressive list of subjects.

Although he worked hard on the family farm, Burns was more a thinker than a labourer – an anachronism of his timeline. He therefore turned to the secular devotions of poetry, nature, drink and women: softening the harsh reality of a physical lifestyle.

A young Burns stumbled upon poetry when, at the tender age of 15, he met his first love of many, Nelly Kirkpatrick, who inspired him to write a song entitled O Once I lov’d a Bonnie Lass. Not one of his most erudite works, but one that released the raging floods of his imaginative genius that remained with him throughout his short life.

Women provided the stimulation for much of Burns’ genius and the stimulus for his desires. He managed to sire 12 children to countless lassies and twins to the curvaceous brunette who he later went on to marry.

Poor Jean Armour, she must have despaired at his philandering tendencies and his chronic adulterous behaviour, but her’s is another story.

Burns was a man of profound thought and an incurable romantic who saw the world around him as a blank canvass to paint his ardent ideals upon. Through countless lines, he turned the humble into heroes; small animals into socialist champions; blushing young lassies into pastoral pleasures; ploughed fields into stunning landscapes; and everyday objects into icons of national pride.

He often turned his obsessions towards the plight of the ordinary man and poignant political social comment that he wrote in the vernacular, often leading to a few raised eyebrows and some gasps of outrage by those members of society who found his satire a little too biting.

His first published works, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect: Kilmarnock Edition, saw the light of day on 31 July 1786.

With a growing movement towards romanticism in art and literature during that time, Edinburgh’s literati applauded him and an Edinburgh edition was published soon after. The work was considered to be one of the greatest poetical collections ever written. Its appeal was obvious not only to the educated, but importantly, to the common man, just like Burns himself.

With his new-found celebrity status, Burns moved to the city where he was swept around the circles of the important and the wealthy. No longer a lowly wordsmith he took it upon himself to go some way into preserving an important part of Scotland’s cultural heritage. To do this, he embarked on a few tours of Scotland, gathering up old Scottish folk songs and re-working them. Auld Lang Syne and My Love is Like a Red Red Rose are just two such songs that started life as fragments of unpublished lyrics before being given the golden Burns’ treatment.

His celebrity status didn’t last, however, and 18 months later he found himself actively seeking employment.

Burns moved to Ellisland Farm near Auldgirth where he wrote some 130 ~ about a quarter ~ of his songs and poems, and 230 of his 700 letters in the space of three years.

The hard soil of the Nith Valley proved too difficult to farm, however, and, almost completely broke, he took a job as an exciseman in Dumfries in 1789.

Burns moved into a first floor tenement flat in the town with his wife and family and spent most of his time at his favourite howff – the Globe Inn – where he would apparently share a few jars with his drouthie cronies before lumbering home to bed.

A lot of controversy and conflicting information surrounds the death of Robert Burns. It has been said that his dissolute lifestyle eventually came back to claim its tithe. Whether it was rheumatic fever, heart failure, pneumonia or indeed the consequences of too much secular excess, a chilly dip in the Solway Firth on his physician's instructions didn’t do him any good and possibly finished him off.

Burns’ son Maxwell was born on 25 July 1796.

On that day 10,000 people lined the streets of Dumfries for the funeral of a man they had come to love for turning their lives into lines. 

Burns died four days earlier, aged 37.

There is a star whose beaming ray
Is shed on ev'ry clime
It shines by night, It shines by day
And ne'er grows dim wi' time
It rose up on the banks of Ayr
It shone on Doon's clear stream
Two hundred years are gane and mair
Yet brighter grows its beam
THE STAR O'ROBBIE BURNS, Words by James Thomson

Brighter grows its beam.

Robert Burns has achieved immortality: his eternal lines have influenced a nation as well as important poets, writers, artists and politicians. They have travelled across the continents to stir the collective soul of men throughout the world: he is a symbol of freedom of speech and a champion of the common man.

Over two centuries on, his voice grows even stronger and his legacy brighter. Unlike the dwindling flame of the traditional skills of Scotland’s cultural heritage, Burns’ lessons are handed down through the generations and are perhaps even more relevant today than they were in his lifetime: the pen is indeed mightier than the sword.

He has taught us that Scotland has never needed the heads of foreign monarchs or statesmen to call itself a nation; for the true power has always lain in the hearts of its people and the spirit of the ordinary man.

So raise your glasses and revel in his legacy: to the glorious memory of Scotland’s national bard – a poet, a lyricist, a lover, a father, a humanitarian, a revolutionary, a socialist icon, an 18th century rock and roller, but also just a man who had a way with words, for a’ that.