Book review: It’s a Bright World to Feel Lost in by Mawson

I could not resist reviewing this charming picture book for adults by the irresistibly cute Mawson bear!

“Are you feeling a little lost? Got that ‘left in the spare room’ emptiness about you? Mawson does too.
He sits atop his cushion and ponders about baffling things.
The world is a baffling place for a curious teddy bear to live in. Friends approach him about their own dilemmas. They seek instant answers that will make everything all right. Mawson does his best. But after he ponders deeply, most things remain for him just as baffling as they were before.
Take a moment out of your day to pawse with him and explore the world. For the many frazzled readers who feel, secretly, much the same, he offers the comfort that the world is a bright place to be.”

My thoughts:

Mawson has penned a simple and moving tale of love and devotion, of belonging and losing the one you were born to protect. Brief text explains charming and evocative photographs of Mawson and his friends. Mawson is the most ponderous and baffled of bears. He tries to make sense of the world around him, but is challenged at every turn. Each page contains a message to dwell on and there is a satisfying twist at the end.

The shift in perspective as a loveable teddy bear reflects on how he needs to be loved stimulates a different way of viewing the world, encouraging us to put ourselves in the bear’s shoes. When we do, we are suddenly faced with our own selfishness and lack of empathy. Sure, Mawson is just a bear, a fluffy toy, and not a real animate being, or is he? Isn’t he a metaphor for all those living creatures we neglect? And what about those times when we feel neglected? Where do we turn?

It’s a Bright World is a meditation on the nature of love, missing, grieving, solace and healing. The story contains a powerful message: those who provide comfort are too often taken for granted.

It is possible to read this little book in about ten minutes, but then, you might find yourself dipping back in, again and again, leaving your copy on the coffee table to return to at whim. It’s a Bright World is that sort of book.

 

The Tides Between by Elizabeth Jane Corbett

I am delighted to share my review of Elizabeth Jane Corbett’s debut novel, The Tides Between.

“In 1841, on the eve of her departure from London, Bride’s mother demands she forget her dead father and prepare for a sensible, adult life in Port Phillip. Desperate to save her childhood, fifteen-year-old Bridie is determined to smuggle a notebook filled with her father’s fairy tales to the far side of the world.

When Rhys Bevan, a soft-voiced young storyteller and fellow traveller realises Bridie is hiding something, a magical friendship is born. But Rhys has his own secrets and the words written in Bridie’s notebook carry a dark double meaning.

As they inch towards their destination, Rhys’s past returns to haunt him. Bridie grapples with the implications of her dad’s final message. The pair take refuge in fairy tales, little expecting the trouble it will cause.”

My Review

Told from three viewpoints, Elizabeth Jane Corbett’s debut novel is a fearless yet endearing exploration of the day-to-day existence of a small cast of characters, each with their troubles, who are incarcerated along with numerous families in the steerage deck of a ship bound for Australia. The Tides Between is an ironic tale in some ways, for the duration of a voyage that spans half the globe, the epic journey that unfolds is one situated at the hearth of human existence.

Corbett writes with a deft pen. The author is unafraid to expose the reality of life for working class migrants making the treacherous voyage to Australia. In true literary fashion, the narrative presses forward through the unfolding realisations of its characters, the backstory interwoven in fragments.

The Tides Between opens with fifteen-year old Bridie clutching a notebook of fairy stories she was forbidden to keep as she boards a ship bound for Port Phillip. What unfolds is in part a coming of age story, as Bridie learns to handle the grief she feels at the loss of her father, and accept the benevolent affections of her stepfather, Alf. Yet The Tides Between is less a story of one girl’s entry into adulthood and more a meditation on trauma and its consequences, and on identity and the power of myth.

These themes are strikingly played out through Rhys, a young Welshman and miner’s son crippled by claustrophobia.  His wife, Sian, is pregnant, as is Bridie’s mother. Will either woman manage to safely birth her child before the ship pulls in at its destination? Will Rhys transcend his anguish? Will Bridie shake off her adolescent ill humour? Can Alf, a man strangled by his sense of duty and obedience, find the courage to confront the ship’s surgeon?

Corbett carries her plot forward with intricate attention to emotional detail. The heaving waters of the various oceans traversed a powerful metaphor for those heaving in the hearts of protagonists Bridie, Rhys and Alf.

Corbett’s writing is visual, metaphoric and intelligent.

“The night air fell like a chill shawl on her shoulders. Turning back towards the hatchway, she heard an eerie drawn out sound from beyond the deckhouse. She halted, nerves feathering her spine.”

It is in this fashion that dramatic tension is maintained, the reader treated page after page to Corbett’s elegant prose.

The theme of fairy tales is prominent, but these are not the stories of children’s books. They are powerful myths rich with significance. Bridie strives to make sense of the world and relationships through the lens of fairy tales, questioning, comparing, speculating. Corbett juxtaposes Bridie’s musings with the reality of her situation, conveyed through the harsh, albeit sensible worlds of her mother.    Meanwhile, Rhys grapples with his own demons. The only time he can cope with being in steerage is when he is on stage, telling Welsh fairy tales to a captive audience. Through the friendship that grows between Bridie and Rhys, Corbett explores the healing power of fairy tales, a release as much for the teller as the listener.

In one respect, The Tides Between is a vivid portrayal of life in steerage. The reader is there with the stench and the lice and the privy buckets. Just as she is unflinching when it comes to portraying the physical hardships onboard, Corbett casts a microscopic eye over the complexities of grief and shame, taboos and social rejection.

Despite its heartrending moments, The Tides Between is ultimately a story of redemption, transformation and hope.

“She had begun to treasure their moments together, like bright beads, slipping through her fingers and puddling at the bottom of memory’s purse.”

The Tides Between pulls the reader in two directions, the desire to continue turning the pages at odds with an equally a strong wish to pause and reflect on its various intricacies, its depth. The only difficulty faced in reviewing a book of this quality is putting it down long enough to scribe reflections. A work I would describe as literary historical fiction, The Tides Between, is a captivating and immersive read.

 

Pia and the Skyman by Sue Parritt

Sue Parritt’s Pia and the Skyman is the second in her Climate Fiction trilogy, following on from Sannah and the Pilgrim, which I reviewed last year.

PIA AND THE SKYMAN

From the very first sentence, Pia and the Skyman engages the reader in the action, Parritt quickly and skilfully establishing the backstory carried over from Sannah and the Pilgrim. Sannah’s daughter, Pia, and her former lover, Kaire, are thrown together to help maintain ‘the women’s line,’ a resistance movement in a climate changed future, set up to help free prisoners doomed to a lifetime in underground desert prisons in what has become an ‘Apartheid Australia.’

Then there’s the matter of Kaire the Skyman and his cohort of clones languishing on a space station that was launched many centuries before with the aim of seeking another planet for humanity. Kaire is not without criticism. “How arrogant to imagine they could wreck one planet then move on to another without a backward glance.”

Lies, deceit, betrayal and tragedy along with a healthy dose of passion carry the narrative along in what turns out to be a remarkably engaging read.

Pia and the Skyman is a thoughtful, carefully considered work.   Parritt’s writing is assured, confident and commanding, a steady pace maintained, the use of passive voice creating an emotional detachment befitting the stark conditions of a climate changed dystopia. “Desert desert go away…let us live another day,” the children in the playground chant.

Parritt is adept at creating an edge-of-survival atmosphere without recourse to over dramatisation. Her setting is vividly real, painted with a simple palette, and fine craftsmanship and attention to detail. Her characters are deftly portrayed and immediately recognisable.

The scenario Parritt depicts is not far removed from our own current reality, the story a metaphor for our times, and a logical extrapolations of successive Australian governments’ commitment to off-shore detention of asylum seekers in gulags. Environmental refugees are among us now. How many more will there be if we don’t amend our ludicrous dependence on fossil fuels?

There’s a deeply pacifist moral undertone that runs right through the story, carrying forward values of peace and right human relations, values elevated partly through Kaire, who in a fashion represents the higher moral ground. “Down there [in Aotearoa] his fellow settlers were doing their utmost to live a sustainable life, yet still found time to help those at risk in Australia. He wanted to shout out his admiration, tell them never to give up the struggle.”

Pia conveys values of compassion and goodwill. She acts, decisively and sometimes impulsively, exemplifying the determination and resilience of all the women who sacrifice their own safety for the sake of others in the Women’s Line – a powerful symbol of cooperation, collaboration and resistance founded on principles of solidarity and trust found amongst women in all situations of oppression and hardship the world over.

Through Pia and the Skyman Sue Parritt makes an important statement about the myopia that seems to have befallen our political leaders, especially in Australia. Humanity will be faced with harsh choices if environmental conditions become as brutal as they are in Parritt’s reality. As well they might. And I very much doubt humanity would have the capacity to respond all that differently to that of Parritt’s Apartheid Australia. On the whole we seem incapable of transcending our own selfish, divisive and hate fuelled beliefs. We’ll need a lot of goodwill and far-sightedness to avoid the scenario contained in this trilogy. Sue Parritt might as well be a soothsayer.

Port of No Return by Michelle Saftich

9781922200280-300x450

There are stories that need to be told, stories sidelined, destined to languish on the periphery of our knowledge of history, stories eclipsed by bigger, more sensational stories. Until an author like Michelle Saftich comes along.

Port of No Return is a work of historical fiction, set at the end of WWII, which tracks the stories of four families as they flee their war-ravaged city of Fuime, Northern Italy, for the refugee camps in nearby Trieste, as communist Yugoslavia, under the command of General Tito, claims ownership.

Saftich leads the reader by the hand into the intimate domestic lives of Contessa and Lena and Bianca, and Ettore, Edrico and Roberto, with all of their children, and of course Nonna. Their homes are bombed, their lives under threat. When Fuime was under German occupation, many locals were required to work in the arms factories. The Partisans created lists of the traitors. When they seized control, those men were rounded up and shot, or imprisoned and tortured, and then shot. It’s a familiar story. I’m easily reminded of current times in Syria and Iraq. And to that end alone, this book is an important read.

And as we face a refugee crisis second only to World War II, in Port of No Return Saftich depicts the struggles of millions of refugees displaced across Europe and the challenges they faced finding a place, any place, to live.

The hunger, the awful conditions, and the waiting, endless waiting, are portrayed through the eyes of the characters as they scratch out a day to day existence. It is a story in which hope and despair vie for supremacy.

Saftich portrays her characters with sympathy and sensitivity in confident, down-to-earth prose. The narrative is well-crafted and well-researched. Port of No Return is a story of survival, of hope, of the tenacity of those Italian families determined to have a future. And through it Saftich opens our hearts to compassion, a commendable feat.

A Single Light by Patricia Leslie

ASingleLight_hi-res_2x3in

With A Single Light Patricia Leslie melds city grit and ethereal myth, the twin demands of Urban Fantasy, to form a perfect unity. The plot is simple, a good and evil battle to save humanity from extinction. Yet there is nothing simple in its execution, Leslie demonstrating both a depth of knowledge of her subject and writerly finesse.

Protagonist Rick Hendry, along with a federal agent, a doctor, an archeologist and a journalist, are thrust into a realm of angels and ghouls through a spate of mysterious deaths and disappearances in suburbs surrounding one of Sydney’s natural parklands. They are joined by a Hunter, one of the Afflur whose eternal task is to protect humanity from the evil Bledray. On the face of it, scarcely a unique tale, but as with most stories that comply with the strictures of genre fiction, the originality is all in the telling.

Urban Fantasy is a blend of crime and fantasy fiction. In A Single Light, Leslie displays mastery of both genres. As I was reading, I could imagine the author producing a fabulous crime novel one moment, an epic fantasy tale the next. Yet A Single Light also contains elements of horror, the reader forgiven for sensing echoes of Stephen King. It’s a fair comparison, Leslie’s storytelling, imbued with a mounting dread, and her detailed depictions of the acts of the Bledray, easily sit inside the horror genre, the quality of writing, fairly compared to King’s.

“A shift in the light; shadows moving across the room, horrendous and distorted, and then settling into a more recognisable form as they reached the windows. The curtains dropped as the window closed. The back door opened with a creak and the shadows left. Only the fan kept moving, blowing warm air and a trail of dust around the room, back and forth back and forth …”

Leslie’s characters are well-crafted and come alive on the page with all their foibles. Equally so, the otherworldly figures, the Afflur and the Bledray. Each shift in perspective clearly defined. Each scene carefully crafted.

“At once her whole form relaxed, hair-neat and pulled back in the cab of the truck-escaped its bonds to caress her shoulders, bright eyes became tired and lined, tight lips softened into a tanned face well-used to travelling at the whim of a hooked thumb and a driver’s caprice.”

The narrative is well-paced, the reader carried along by the dramatic tension established from the first page. A perfect mix of action and introspection, held together with vivid descriptions, never overdone, enshroud the reader in a reality so convincing, the very existence of A Single Light’s fantasy figures endures beyond the page.

Leslie’s prose is commensurate with the Urban Fantasy sub-genre, which demands both the earthy realism of crime and the imaginative transcendence of fantasy. It’s a fine balance, one that Leslie achieves with flair. The voice is unselfconscious, mature and poised, absent the pretensions of over-adornment, or the stilted prose the result of an overuse of Occam’s razor, one that plonks the reader in an emotional desert. Evident in Leslie’s writing, is a balance of sophistication and simplicity that will satisfy those after a work of substance while remaining immediately accessible to the page turner reader.

What a sight!!!

The penultimate day of our stay on the island proved to be intriguing.

Our first stop was Arrecife, the island’s capital famous for it’s warren of narrow streets. Until this day we had taken the ring road, avoiding the confusion. This time, on a mission to deposit copies of The Drago Tree at a book shop near the Castillo de San Gabriel, we had no choice but to enter the fray.

Somehow we found our way to the Cabildo, on the southern end of town, an impressive modern building constructed in Spanish colonial style and surrounded by car parks. Not wanting to re-enter the warren of streets, we parked and walked the promenade back to Calle Leon y Castillo.

Lanzarote

The day was sunny and warm and it was a pleasant walk, first through a neatly laid out cactus garden fringed with low stone walls flanking the sea, and then around the creamy sands and sapphire waters of Playa Reducto – my kind of beach too, shallow and still. There were couples, old and young, women with strollers, the people of the city walking leisurely, relaxed. It’s a vibe you lock into, immediately.

Once past the 5 star Gran Hotel, the promenade continued on to Castillo de San Gabriel. Here, major road works impeded the flow of our walk, but the view of the old fort and the shimmering sea drew our attention.

We found the Libreria El Puente, down a side street off Calle Leon y Castillo – Arrecife’s main thoroughfare – the owner happy to take our remaining copies of The Drago Tree, to sell on our behalf.

By now it was lunch time. We had to eat. After walking around a number of side streets, passing eateries either uninspiring and notably empty, or exciting and predictably overflowing, we ended up back at the bookshop, and the restaurant next door. A small, friendly affair, with original paintings for sale on the walls and fried rabbit on the menu. Irresistible.

Arrecife

I imagined intense conversations between leftist intellectual types over salami and hard cheese. And I wondered at who the two men were who ran the joint and whether they were really from Andalucia. I doubted it.

We ambled over to the old fort along a narrow causeway, pausing at the old drawbridge for photos, staring down into the tranquil water, watching a woman taking advantage of the warmer shallows and edged by basalt walls, little beaches, pebble strewn, appearing unexpectedly.

Arrecife

The fort was closed. So we posed by the cannons, had a snoop around and strolled back along the other causeway. I told Michelle I thought I could rent an apartment in Arrecife, one facing the ocean, and write a book or two. Something about the vibe of the city aroused me. Maybe all those narrow streets filled with secrets.

We stopped for gelato near the Gran Hotel. By the time we reached our car it was 4pm.

Perfect timing for a drive to Famara. I wanted to provide Michelle with a contrast.

El Risco

It took about 1/2 an hour to drive across the belly of the island. And there we were facing north, with the cliff of El Risco towering to our east, the low rollers pushing in the tide. So we walked along the beach, pebbly and not so easy on the feet (I had rather stupidly chosen sandals for the outing), and kept on heading east, hoping that the lower the sun, the less cyclists would be on the roads when we headed back to our farmhouse in Maguez. On and on we went, in no hurry to turn around. Then Michelle stopped and asked me if I wanted to continue. I said I didn’t care either way but sensed she wanted to head back. As I turned I saw a man, naked, heading our way.

His speed was greater than ours. I turned back a few times, to admire the cliffs, say adios, or hasta luego, and there he was in all his glory. So I said to Michelle, ‘He’s spoiling my view.’

‘Complete with his semi,’ she replied.

I have to admit it took me a while to connect his half-erect penis jutting out like those of the male figurines that sometimes appear above male ablutions, or indeed abound in my friend Domingo’s studio, with her comment – semi.

Harianovio del mojon

We laughed all the way home. I was still wiping away the tears as I set about making cauliflower soup. (We’re down to using up the scraps of the groceries we’ve been buying from the local supermercado in Arrieta. Tomorrow is chorizo day. Don’t ask.)

Michelle is happy to report that we walked 16,000 steps today. She has an app. What the app doesn’t say is that they were all steps of contentment.

Long gone the old ways …

As any anthropologist will tell you, the old ways of indigenous cultures the world over are always tramped on in the name of progress. Some are decimated, wiped from the earth like unwanted crumbs. Others allowed to exist on the fringes, tolerated, ignored and oppressed all at once. Then there are smaller cultures absorbed into a larger dominant culture, seeping into language and custom. And then there are those wiped away by the dishrag of colonisation, only to be resurrected as curiosities for the edification of tourism.

Lanzaroteview of Los Helechos through our front door

Here on Lanzarote, the indigenous people, the Conojeros, blended with their colonisers, through marriage, through birth. A new sort of traditional way of life, Catholicised, yet still seated in the old ways, endured for centuries. It was a culture of survival and resilience in brutal conditions. Here, dry land farming and ingenious water capture techniques kept a small population of about a few thousand from starvation.

LanzaroteAn alcogida

Swathes of the lower slopes of volcanoes were smeared with concrete (alcogidas), funnelling water into underground water tanks (aljibes); large fresh water ponds (maretas) were built along with wells and dams; in the 1920s, tunnels were gouged into the cliff of El Risco to access the water in the water galleries of the Famara massif; roofs of dwellings and patios built high, were designed to channel water into farmhouse aljibes – the people went to ingenious lengths to capture what little rain there was.

Up until the 1960s and beyond, farmers terraced the mountainsides right to the top to capture any water should it rain, creating moist micro-environments along the stone wall edge. The terraces also took advantage of the moisture provided by morning mist.

LanzaroteMaize growing in little cinder pits

The Conojeros were a people accustomed to breathtaking views, at ease in the wind, strong enough at times to knock you over.

The people built their farmhouses strategically, the north facing wall windowless, rooms inside facing an interior courtyard. Farmers lived alongside their animals. They grew what they could, hardy plants able to tolerate high amounts of wind. For a long time only two villages existed, Teguise and Haria, the other villages were more like localities where a few farmhouses, spread well apart, took advantage of a valley, a mountainside, a plain.

Fish were plentiful and a small fishing industry grew up around Arrecife. Some farmers grew prickly pear for cochineal. Salt works providing another source of income for a sparse economy.

In the 1960s up sprang a hotel. And then another …

YaizaCamel sculptures on a roundabout in Yaiza.

Now, the tourists can see the old ways, as displayed in museums courtesy of CACT (the local government’s Centre for Arts, Culture and Tourism). Or they can visit the alcogidas, now in disrepair, or poke their heads down an abandoned aljibe, or well – the water below polluted by effluent and no longer safe to drink, or check out the dam at Mala, the wall now cracked and leaking, or puzzle over the site of the grand mareta at Teguise, and witness the erosion of the mountainsides where the terraces are crumbling away.

The government knows it has a problem. Residents are entitled to have 10,000 square metres of land to farm as they wish, with access to cheap water from the desal plants – but the young are not that interested.

You can still see the old farmers at work. Up in the north there are many small farms run by the old people. Little fields of black planted up with neat rows of maize, and not a weed in sight. A farmer harvesting potatoes by hand, his wheelbarrow nearby. They still farm right to the mountaintops and the cliff edge. It’s a privilege to behold.

Haria LanzaroteThe mother volcano, La Corona, as seen from our garden.

I am glad I decided to write a sequel to The Drago Tree. I want to be taken deeper into the story of this island. And the sequel will necessitate my return. For now, as our time here draws to a close, I feel just as Ann felt at the end of her holiday, still in awe of my surroundings, wanting to celebrate the traditions and mourn their passing, at odds with the very tourist industry that has allowed my easy passage to Lanzarote’s shores.

The fire mountains

What can be said about driving down a narrow road carved through a lava plain, a road that goes on and on and on? The basalt that covers the land in every direction, thick, crusty, alive with lichen. Volcanoes or calderas 500 metres high and about 1 or 2 kilometres in diameter, rising up like cone-shaped boils, some black, others brown or red. Then there are those calderas burst open, serrated at the rim, splayed where their lava spilled to scour the land.

Timanfaya

Everywhere you look on the island, there they are, some ancient, some young, the roads on Lanzarote coursing paths between.

Lanzarote volcano

The eruptions of Timanfaya that took place in the mid 1700s and lasted for 6 years, have resulted in a landscape not of this world. A spreading mass of impenetrable rock, about 15 kilometres wide and long.

Lanzarote lava

These volcanoes emerged in fissures in the land, once a wide plain perfect for grazing. Fissures bleeding rock, cleaving open as the pressure of the volcanoes beneath forced their way above ground. This is what I have read and imagine, a primordial groaning, perhaps deafening, definitely terrifying, apocalyptic. Livestock asphyxiated, fish boiled alive, the ocean steaming, the island showered with volcanic ash and smoke. You have to know all this, to appreciate the place as it is now. But it is still impossible to take in.

The speed limit of 50 kmh is too fast. We crawled along, fascinated, not wanting to reach the end of the road.

We went to where the lava met the ocean. The road snaking along, embedded in the lava, right beside the water’s edge.

Los Helechos

We parked at Los Hervidores, a site of extraordinary beauty, where narrow basalt paths have been created to allow tourists to get close and see that meeting of rock and water. The basalt is many metres thick, chunky, descending in a vertical cliff. The ocean swells and surges, blue on black, sending forth its spume. There are holes in the lava, like wells, places to get soaked when the ocean is angry.

No one speaks. The wind, that other element, blows and blows. You either get used to it, or you leave Lanzarote behind for another clime. I love this meeting of the elements, all of them present, in the wind, the ocean, the rock born of fire. Lanzarote is a powerful place, unspoiled, a place to be revered. And as Ann found in The Drago Tree, every tourist slips into reverence in the face of such a setting.

Nothing has changed…

Before I came here I was informed by one and all that Lanzarote had changed in the last twenty-six years, changed dramatically, for better or worse who can say. When I landed and saw the development, the mass of white cubes where once was rocky terrain, I had agreed, and when we headed north to the farmhouse we had rented for the 18 days, it was with some trepidation in my heart.

My companion and publisher Michelle was seeing all for the very first time. And I have witnessed her reactions, her awe, her growing affection for the island. With a smile.

Puerto CaleroMichelle Lovi, taken as we ambled along the strip of expensive designer boutiques of Puerto Calero.

For me, the north of the island – about 7 km long and 5 wide – is my old stomping ground. Every village and every road familiar. But I’d forgotten the three dimensionality, the way the mountains and volcanoes loom, the way the old crusty lava dominates. I’d forgotten the atmosphere, at once friendly yet private, closed. For millennia the people here have farmed this land. They’ve terraced the mountainsides as high as they dare to trap the water flow, on the odd occasions it rains. The way they’ve plastered slopes with a lime wash, and funnelled that water into underground water tanks (aljibes). The use they’ve made of the basalt rock and the volcanic cinders (picon), as wind break and mulch.

LanzaroteAnother view of La Corona taken fom our farmhouse.

Despite the explosion of tourism which now forms about 90% of the island’s economy, the old farmers can still be found, tilling their land. Not as many as I recall, and certainly not as many as fifty years ago, but some cling to the old ways, some see sense in the dry land farming techniques their ancestors created.

Not much development has occurred in the north. The villages are much the same, a mix of smart new villas, old run down farmhouses, ruins and vacant blocks. A few farmhouses here and there on the land around. The restaurants cater for the people more than tourists. The shops are few and largely invisible.

So, what has changed? My answer is simple. Nothing. Unless I reduce change to a mere matter of multiplication. The population has doubled. Expats from many nations comprise about 30%. Many from Latin America. Consequently, there are a lot more houses. Tourism has boomed. Consequently, there are a lot more hotels and apartments. The roads are wider and there are roundabouts everywhere. Supermarkets and petrol stations abound. Cyclists from La Santa, athletic types wearing the correct gear, hog the roads.

There is definitely a lot more money around, going into the pockets of some, and not the many.

And that’s it.

For me, Lanzarote is the same as it ever was. There is the same north/south divide, as if those choosing the south, where almost all the development has occurred, overshadowed by the rugged dry peaks of Los Ajaches, the young calderas of Timanfaya, a landscape conjuring a certain pioneering spirit in the soul, of the Wild West perhaps, somewhere on the edge, pervades the collective psyche.

imageA small creation by indigenous artist Domingo Diaz Barrios

Those choosing the north are influenced by the softer greener peaks of the Famara massif, drawing on the comfort of its sheltered valleys, the secret of the massif, its dramatic western cliff, always hidden from view. Here the artists and artesans live, here the politics of the Left can be found, here the traditions of old are honoured, championed, preserved. The old German bakery with its sourdoughs and ryes, still sells at the markets. The French crepe stall is also still trading. Little moments in The Drago Tree that I’d inserted from memory, suddenly made real. Along with the ceramicists, painters, jewellery makers, all still here…

imageA small work by indigenous artist Domino Diaz Barrios

In a restaurant in Arrieta, down on the waterfront, we were introduced to a desert made from Gofio (toasted maize flour), ground almonds, sugar (not much) and cream. It’s a children’s desert, made in large batches. I had the idea of adding Brandy to the mix to create an adult version. It turned out to be so good we went back yesterday for more! Simple pleasures. How we like it.

For me, nothing has changed. The tiers of locals, Spanish and ‘the strangers’ from other lands exist in much the same way as they did when I was last here. The lumbering edifice of Spanish bureaucracy is more or less the same. Opportunistic ‘fat cat’ businessmen wheeling and dealing, greasing the hands of officials with brown envelopes – how is that any different to anywhere else? And the easy going, accepting, tolerant locals prepared to make space for the temporary colonisation that is tourism, mirrors the attitude adopted by their ancestors of millennia past, in the face of conquest and piratical attack. This, after all, is an island accustomed to invasion.

Shifting perspectives

Day 6 and my awe and delight at having returned are replaced by an acute awareness. Here are some of my observations.

Lanzarote is an island of contrasts. The everyday lives of the locals, with their tight knit family networks, their lives lived behind closed doors, and the tourists. Like almost all tourist destinations where the industry has planted itself in amongst a local culture and boomed, the people and their traditions, their culture, seems squeezed aside. At times tourism manifests like a sycamore in a foreign land, a eucalypt in Africa, a cane toad, a feral cat. Tourism, in essence temporary migration, fostered and serviced by a corporate edifice with no conscience.

Manrique Tahiche

I wonder, do the locals here hide? I would hide. I would be pleased the windows of my house faced an interior courtyard and not the street outside. For the island feels overrun. Only in the backstreets of the remotest villages, or the suburbs of the larger towns, can the people escape the invasion. The roads are busy, and anywhere remote is frequented by the more adventurous tourist, especially the cyclist.

It’s an impossible situation, on a small island formerly poor with a struggling economy, a backwater passed over in favour of it’s more stately sisters. Now the economy is dominated by tourism, and, just like Ann observed in The Drago Tree, there is no going back to the old days.

image

Thankfully on Lanzarote much care has been taken to preserve the island’s natural beauty spots. The malpais (lava) making it difficult to develop large areas, especially in the north. And the artist, architect and ecologist Cesar Manrique set an example of how to cater to tourists without ruining the environment, one followed by many, those respecting the island’s status as a biosphere reserve.

Michelle and I have spent the last few days witnessing the tourist-local dynamic. On remote, winding lanes, we’ve been almost side swiped by cyclists riding two or three abreast. We’ve walked the gritty paths in the island’s hidden corners, only to find others passing us, heading off and up and round and every which way.

We’ve hung out in a bar in the main drag of one of the island’s quieter tourist strips, and spoken with a group of English expats, all of them warm and friendly. They are aspiring writers, and I was giving a talk. I was one of them, in my heart the same desire to live on Lanzarote. I can’t criticise their wish.

We’ve hung out in restaurants in the north frequented by locals and a few tourists, and we’ve enjoyed the exceptional service, the generosity.

We’ve walked through Manrique’s extraordinary house in Tahiche, created in a lava tube accessed by several small jameos (holes in the lava). An artist inspired by Gaudi and Picasso, his creative impulse evident in every corner.

We’ve been to the artesan market in Haria, and wandered around the backstreets, passing couples also wandering around. I was showing Michelle where I used to live. And we were on the hunt for an old friend, Domingo.

image

We found him in his house on the edge of the village. I hadn’t seen him for twenty-six years but he’s the same. And our affinity for each other’s company was just as I recalled.

image

For the first time since we arrived, I was forced to speak only Spanish. We were talking about the past, about our lives, about the future. How I could live here again. With a good internet connection I most certainly could. And then, what would I be? An expat, an English-born Australian author championing the values, the hopes, the dreams of others. A stranger.

No. I’ll have to leave the characters I created in The Drago Tree to live that life on my behalf.