Sunday, October 15, 2017

Lizards, Magic and Folkestone

The Djenné Manuscript Library’s final digitization project with the Endangered Archives Programme (EAP) of the British Library has drawn to a close and I am putting the last touches on the translation into English (from French) of  the  descriptions which accompany the digitized Djenné manuscripts. The documents are in Arabic, but the Djenné workers have translated the meta data into  French.

It is a varied crop of documents : much repetition of  traditional works of Islamic Jurisprudence ; numerous copies of the Quran as well as other religious material such as Hadiths (traditional stories from the life and times of the Prophet Mohammad). There is correspondance and advice on how to write letters ; there is some history (we have two copies of the famous Tarik-Al Sudan, (1655),  partly written in Djenné by Abd al-Sadi, which chronicles the Songhai Empire. We have plenty of texts which concerns Sufism. And we have hundreds- no thousands-of manuscripts which deal with magic…Djenne’s speciality. This was an interesting one :  

« How to find fortune and be admired by others by the use of quranic verses and  the names of Allah in conjunction with the flesh and skin of the Uromastyx lizard… »

I remember this lizard- I would sometimes see it when out riding- it is not the common type which one sees everywhere around Djenné.
Although some orthodox factions in Islam would question certain magic practises in Djenné, the Djenné marabouts believe that because their magic is exercised in connection with verses from the Quran it is definitely legitimate. 

Meanwhile the Timbuktu project has seen its first working week- above a ‘family picture’ of the team by the Imam Essayouti Library. 
And, on the home front, I went to the lovely city of Folkestone yesterday with Mali veterans Pia, Andrew and Yonatani. A seed has been planted… 

I cannot think of anywhere more beautiful to live than in a large flat on the top of the cliff with views over the channel all the way to France on a clear day ! And just around the corner,  for sunset drinks on the veranda,  is the fabulous Grand Hotel, which someone aptly called the Chelsea Hotel of Folkestone. It also reminded me of the Lido in Venice in its Edwardian faded splendour. Could this be the Future ?

Monday, October 2, 2017

A Crush on Taz

Taz is lovely. He is probably about 25 and works in PC Garage by Ladbroke Grove Tube. He always amuses me. I like to watch him interacting with people : unfailingly polite and patient he deals with everyone in the same friendly and helpful way. He is not a flirt really, but people flirt with him endlessly, hoping for something a little more perhaps but  he just  responds kindly to everyone. I have had reasons to go in there over the last few weeks because I need IT stuff.  I am normally a really impatient shopper. But at PC Garage I don’t mind. I just settle in happily, watching Taz dealing with the other customers, calming them and reassuring  them with  his soothing manner and his slight Indian accent  before turning his attention to me.
The other day there was a  woman in her fifties with long bleached blonde hair, short skirt, a large  pot belly  and an enormous amount of badly applied make up talking to Taz about her cheap mobile phone which had stopped working and couldn’t be mended. Since it didn’t work anymore she needed some on line information about her up- coming trip to Rumania. She had Taz checking up the time schedule for the tube to Heathrow on the day of her trip, then she wanted some other  information, totally outside of the services PC Garage offer. And I was waiting patiently, enjoying myself while Taz continued supplying the information she needed. And finally she said « thank you so much ! I must take you out for a drink when I get back » and winked at him. And dear Taz said ‘ Yes that would be nice !’  Meanwhile a pretty woman walked past outside the shop window and caught his eye. She blew Taz a kiss. He smiled back and waved. Then a large Somali woman and her grown daughter, both in Hijab, arrived and both started flirting away quite shamelessly while discussing a broken mobile phone screen and trying to bargain. Taz is open to bargaining and that makes Taz-watching even more fun. Quite a gruesome looking type arrived (one couldn’t help thinking he was probably a drug dealer) and tried to buy a £25 mobile phone for £20 but was not successful. However, Taz’s polite refusal was a marvel of diplomacy.
Taz has successfully downloaded Chess Titans on my Windows 10 new computer- quite a feat, since many others have tried and failed. I am not sure that Taz knows the game of chess, but he thinks I like games in general : in this respect I have had to take a firm lead : No, Taz,  I don’t want Candy Crush Soda Saga. And definitely not Bubble Witch 3 thanks. Just Chess Titans. And then I walk away, happy with my little visit to PC Garage, a smile on my face like countless other Taz fans  in the neighbourhood.
So I am now quickly  becoming enmeshed in the technology of Europe : I am gathering an impenetrable forest of pass words and codes in order to access all my new appliances and software. I have been Spotified and Netflixed, I am having a 40¨ flat screen TV arriving tomorrow morning. 

But not only new technology :  tonight dear David took me to the Wigmore Hall for a song recital. (Dire picture below, of the rather beautiful early 20th c. décor.)

 He calls it the Wigmire, and thinks it is a frightfully dull place, although we have seen and heard the most marvellous performances here together, like tonight when the lovely German soprano Anne Schwanewilms sang Lieder from Shubert, Liszt and others. 
This is perfect bliss to me and belongs to Old Europe. There is always something wistful about a good Lieder performance:  old fairy tales spring to life with echos from childhood and half  forgotten poetry, like a delicate piece of Bruges lace. But there is much passion and strength too in a good Lieder performer: and there was plenty in the lovely Ms Schwanewilms: I would love to see her perform Brecht and Weill's Surabaya Johnny... David's review:

I am keeping up the Sunday lunch habit, and yesterday came Kathy and Dan, my dear sculptor friends with their children who are quite grown up now, and we ate nice Roast Pork with apple sauce and played fun games.

And meanwhile, back in Timbuktu, the little team is finally receiving the last touches of their digitization teaching from Suleyman, the teacher  from SAVAMA in Bamako who braved the insecurity on the road up to Timbuktu. The project is on route again, after a long delay caused by the jihadist attack in August.

Standing up to the right  is Oumar Bily, fluent in Arabic and French, who will work on the meta data. He is the one who has spent three years in a Mauritanian refugee camp. This is his first real job!

Sunday, September 24, 2017

A Patch Work

Well, London is claiming me back with all its charms…Jeremiah, as usual, is keeping me entertained with events at Europe House   (,) above and below with Nick Sargent.
 and last night I went to the Chelsea Arts Club and had lovely dinner and lots of drinks with old friends and Mali veterans Lucy and Andrew- the latter took me to the Almeida for a great play on Wednesday  called Against- and  at the same time I am  in daily touch with Timbuktu , Bamako  and Djenné.
The factions that have been working against the Manuscript Library in Djenné have had a final go at trying to close us down, claiming that we are working illegaly. They wanted to see proof that the projects in Djenné had had Malian government approval and cooperation at the outset which it did of course.  I was able to contact London  who managed to find, in the archives, the first project with its signatures and stamps from the representative of the Mission Culturelle in Djenné : that is the local representative of the Ministry ot Culture. That has not stopped the agitators, who are determined to cause us some harm. And all, I suspect, because they  have not earned any money from the project themselves. 
And in Timbuktu the staff have all returned safely and are now waiting for Suleyman, the instructor to arrive from Bamako to set up all the material so the team can finally start working.
 But all that seems a long way away when I sit here, painting my  suggestions for the floorcloth in Auckland Castle.


And now Sunday lunch is cooking slowly in the oven while I go to mass at St Francis, Pottery Lane. Soon old friends Yonatani, Claire and Geoff will be joining me for roast Lamb and mint sauce.  My world seems a patchwork quilt of many  disparate elements, both ordinary and extraordinary, that somehow all work together to make a whole…

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Ladbroke Grove

Overlooking once more the familiar sky line from my flat in London where  I have just moved in again.  After eleven years with only sporadic and short visits back here, between tenants, I am now officially a Ladbroke Grove Resident again. When I bought this flat back in 2002, I had two flats to chose between, equally good. I chose this one because of Van Morrison and his lovely song Slim Slow Slider from Astral Weeks.  (Yes, I am that silly)....... :
‘ Saw you walking down by the Ladbroke Grove this morning…saw you early this morning, with your brand new boy and your Cadillac’.
I have not regretted my whimsical choice. I love my  little flat, and it has always seemed romantic to me, to live on Ladbroke Grove…

And tomorrow I‘m picking up on something else from my old pre-Mali life : I am travelling up to Bishop Auckland, by Darlington in Northern England, where I will visit Auckland Castle, and perhaps begin a commission to recreate a historical painted floorcovering  called a floorcloth, or oilcloth, an ancestor to linoleum and a little known part of design history in which I would be able to  claim to be a world expert, if it didn’t sound so pretentious. Oh, what the hell : I AM an expert. I  spent two years researching this  at the Royal College of Art, History of Design Department and ended up writing a thesis that gained me an M.Phil. But in the last few years I have not made any of these recreations, since I have been ensconced in deepest Mali. So let’s see what happens…

 A couple of days later.
Castle Auckland has been the seat of the bishops of Durham for almost a thousand years, until 2010, when the Church of England decided to sell it. It is now owned by  the Auckland Castle Trust and is being restored to be opened to the public in May 2018. I am standing in the dining room where in the late eighteenth century the architect James Wyatt was commissioned by the then incumbent,  Bishop Barrington,  to put in the neo-gothic window behind me, amongst other improvements. At that time the inventory tells us that an 'oil cloth' was added to the room. That is where I now come in to the equation. This 'oil cloth' would most probably have been painted to imitate an oriental carpet, or a 'Turkey Carpet' as it was called.There is no mention of a pattern, but we can assume that it was fairly elaborate in such a grand room, the walls of which houses twelve Zurbaran paintings depicting Jacob and his twelve sons. I will now revisit my old haunts and do some research at the V&A in the National Arts Library for suitable patterns. How nice!
Below Wyatt' s drawing for the Dining room.

Meanwhile, back in Mali, the little Timbuktu crew is continuing the digitization training in Bamako…here are some first pictures :

 Youssouf Traoré, to the left, is going to work on the meta data which accompanies the images. He is fluent in Arabic, French and English.  We have a very good crew for Timbuktu. they will be heading home next week, to begin, finally the work which was delayed by the terrorist attack in August.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017


Ah, Kar Kar!
Or Boubakar Traoré, the Master of elegant simplicity. Noone can make such heartbreaking lyrics and chords with more economy  and depth. Not even Dylan. I just listened to Dylan and Johnny Cash on You Tube singing

If you're travelin' in the north country fair
Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was a true love of mine
how marvellous.

and KarKar only needs to sing:

I Taara Santa Maryia, I ka Mai fo N’ye…If you go to Santa Maria, be sure to greet Mai for me..(in my dodgy Bambara translation.)

to convey the same thing...

And with such minimal means Kar Kar
makes me cry, and I am not the only one...