I'm currently editing and proofreading letters of Edith Durham (1863-1944), sent from Montenegro in 1911 to members of the British Foreign Office. Edith, an accomplished artist, did not set out to be either a writer or an aid worker, but when she was touring the Balkans fighting broke out (which would turn into the Balkan War) and she responded to the plight of refugees there. This began her life-long interest in the Balkan peoples, and particularly in Albania, a country oppressed for centuries by the Ottoman Turks, and which now strongly wanted independence.
Her letters show her to be a remarkable woman, who is not afraid to speak her mind. I'm struck by her courage and tireless work (singlehandedly, it seems, and unpaid) to help Albanian refugees (mostly women and children) who had fled Turkish troops. There had been regular uprisings throughout the centuries, which were suppressed. But this time (1911) marked a weakening in Ottoman power, and the Turks agreed to terms (after inflicting horrible things on the population, burning homes and crops, pillaging, raping, etc).
Many Albanians had fled across the border to neighbouring Montenegro. It was agreed that if they returned, money would be given to them to rebuild their homes and to buy corn to eat. But the Great Powers of the time (Great Britain, France and Austria-Hungary) refused to guarantee the Turkish promises, which infuriated Edith, as she knew how unlikely the Turks were to keep their promises. She wrote: 'A terrible lot of quite unnecessary suffering was caused by hustling forcibly all these thousands of poor wretches back over the frontier in four days, before any preparations were made for them'.
It was very hot, water was scarce, there was no wood to replace the roofs on their houses and the rainy season was about to begin. None of the promised money had been given out and no steps taken to provide shelter, and she wrote that it was unbearable to think 'of those miserable people' homeless in the streets in the 'torrents of rain'.
A practical woman, she set to work, buying and distributing flannel for people to make clothes. Then, to compound the miseries and difficulties, an outbreak of cholera meant that borders were closed, and the supplies necessary to provide shelters and rebuild homes, could not be shipped in. 'There is now no way of escape from here,' she wrote. 'The Montenegrin frontier is hermetically sealed.'
I couldn't help thinking of the parallels with today – the huge problems facing refugees fleeing hideous wars and not able to find shelter anywhere. And now the outbreak of the coronavirus has triggered emergency restrictions, closing schools and universities in Italy and 'hermetically sealing' areas in China.
The good news for Albania was that, after the misery and fighting, the country did gain its independence in 1912. Edith Durham was asked by the Albanian leaders if she would become their queen. She declined this honour. To the end of her days she worked on behalf of Albania, lobbying MPs and the Foreign Office for financial and moral support for this small, newly-independent country. She wrote several books about her experiences, the most well-known being The Struggle for Scutari and High Albania
An excellent biography of Edith Durham, Albania's Mountain Queen
by Marcus Tanner, was published in 2014.
I recently visited the Tate Modern, to see the Dora Maar exhibition. That day the sky was grey, the river was grey and the angular shapes of the tall glass buildings on London's skyline, they were grey too. Perhaps because of the slight mist in the air. The Tate Modern, with its red and mustard brick facade, stood out as colourful. Formerly the Bankside Power Station, I found its square and chunky lines appealing and welcoming.
Dora Maar (1907-1997) had a long career, as photographer and artist. From the early 1930s she had her own studio in Paris and established herself as a portrait and fashion photographer, with commissions from the latest fashion magazines. Friends with the surrealists, particularly Nusch and Paul Eluard, she went through a surrealist phase in her photography.
Her most captivating photographs, to my mind, are the ones taken in the streets of Paris, particularly in the poorer area, (known as La Zone, and which no longer exists) and of Barcelona. There are the shadows of trees thrown against a high wall, the pavement still wet from recent rain. She shows the boarded up premises of former workshops, still with faded lettering on their signs, the gates of a garage repair shop, with an eager watchdog peering round an open gate, a young man wearing a dark beret (in Barcelona) lying stretched out on a bench in front of a shop with closed shutters, and with a delivery basket perched on top of crates by his head.
Dora Maar documented Picasso's creation of his famous Guernica
, and Picasso used her as a model for one of the women in that painting. Picasso also painted many images of her, most famously the Crying Woman
series. These were not so much personal portraits, as symbolic depictions of the grief of the people of Guernica, models for the tragic figures in his famous painting.
From the late 1930s on, Dora Maar focussed on paintings – street and river scenes and still lifes in Paris, and colourful landscapes, after she moved to the south of France in the 1940s.
Different walks give me such different feelings. I wonder about this on one of my favourite walks. It starts at the elegant Leaderfoot viaduct over the River Tweed, goes underneath the main road and follows a path beside the Leader Water, to the small town of Earlston.
The path starts in a grove of beech trees with thick trunks growing on a mound like an upturned bowl. The sun is shining, which always lifts the heart. Some places have a natural charm, the variety of trees and woods, the wild life, bird song, a squirrel or two scampering up trees. So I ask myself why I particularly like this walk, knowing that there is no simple answer because energy and atmosphere from water and woodland form a whole, and a reason is a sliver, an extract, a pale mental construct, a rather insipid derivative. But the mind likes to play with its reasons and ideas, its counters and dice just like the cat likes to play with its cardboard boxes and tubes and bits of string, with pencils and earrings and any small objects that it can kick from the table or bookcase onto the floor.
And then there's the pointy hill that rises on the other side of the river, with its visible slope carpeted with pine and broad leaved trees. I see from the map that it has been given the rather inscrutable name of Black Hill. This may be because it’s more likely to be in cloud shadow, and so, rather dark, or because of the band of pine trees on its flank. Or because today when I walked past on the other side of the river, a flock of rooks was cawing, rising in great black plumes then settling again in the field in front of the hill, a great rook chorus of protests, or celebration, or general commentary – I found it hard to tell. So you see how much fun trying to find reasons for something (anything at all) can be. As long as you don't take it too seriously.
It only occurs to me later that the Chinese system of Feng Shui might provide the answer. Feng Shui notes the arrangement of landscape (or interiors of buildings) which enhance the flow of harmonious energies. It's not a system that I know much about but it is possible that the attributes of this landscape are full of natural harmony.