Wednesday 25 February 2015

Klondike Gold Rush

In the summer of 2003 Annette, myself, a cousin and husband, decided to leave Vancouver and head for Alaska. We flew to Whitehorse and hired a car for the drive up through the Yukon. The road, sometimes metalled, sometimes gravelled, was open and empty, and whiplashed lazily across unchanging country until we reached Dawson City at the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers. Dawson is of course the town that leapt to its feet during the gold rush of 1898/9. Stories of the prospectors and the peace-keeping mounties led by Sergeant Sam Steele, are legendary. Sam acted as policeman, jailer and judge, a fair but tough man who wanted none of the violence of miners' courts and lynchings that had beleagered the California gold rush: he was ruthless with those who looked on the gun to settle their disputes and was not above jailing a man for hanging out his washing on a Sunday. Skagway, one of the gateway towns to the Klondike had decended into wild lawlessness, a barbarian enclave, and Sam was not a man to allow such a deterioration occur in his territory, despite the fact that thousands of 'gold stampeders' were thundering into Dawson's streets.

I believe the present town looks much the same as it did in 1898. The houses are clapboard, with wooden facias and fronted with boardwalks. The roads are dust in the summer and frozen mud in the winter. We were there during the long sun - darkness banished - and there was no time of the day or night when people did not walk the streets. There were shops selling the tusks and bones of mammoths, presumably found locally, and gold nuggets, and the collected works of the Klondike poet Robert Service of 'The Shooting of Dan McGraw' fame. I could not afford bits of mammoth or gold, so purchased one of the latter and have never stopped delving in its fascinating pages. I also bought Pierre Berton's 'The Last Great Gold Rush' into which I fell headfirst on the first page and did not surface until I broke through the ice at the end. A truly superb work of pen.

Why am I writing about Dawson, when there were three thousand miles of Alaska ahead of me, with bears and whales, and towns like Chicken with two dozen inhabitants, named when the founders got confused by seeing ptarmigan? Perhaps it's because it intrigued me to find there were people who lived in Dawson City all year round - through winters of subterranean darkness and summers of unrelenting light - still working gold claims. These 'sour doughs' as they are called (after the bread dough that kept the early prospectors alive) are not seeking to make themselves millionaires, but simply to make enough money to enable them to live in a place where the temperature drops to below minus sixty degrees and the only light comes from electric bulbs. Why do they do it? Who knows? They live on a different world to the other ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the human race: where days last months and nights are seemingly endless. Time must take on a different quality, work in a different way, when the clocks cannot differentiate between noons and midnights. Surely the minds of the women and men who live there are lost somewhere along scaleless ribbons of dark or light, in that place where sun and moon are barefaced liars? I am intrigued because my feelings while writing a novel take me to a similar place: to a realm and time where I see no end in sight: just an endless flow of thoughts turned into words.

Friday 6 February 2015

The Horse Passion

Spain has many fiestas, mostly saints' days. The Spanish people are fiercely protective of their right to enjoy themselves and do so with great energy and verve. The carnival of a smallest village, tucked into the hills of the Sierra Nevada, does its best to rival that of any. South American city. The costumes are magnificent and inventive, from monstrous walking clocks with working parts, to giant scorpions. I marvel at their ingenuity. One of my favourite fiestas takes place around the end of March when a temporary bull ring is erected in the one-time fishing village of La Herradura where I live for part of the year. The ring is fashioned mostly from plywood and scaffolding, with hard plank seats and no shade from the hot sun. The weekend is devoted to two quadrupeds: the bull and the horse.

On Saturday there is a bull fight. Ernest Hemingway maintained that in order to write in depth about death, it was necessary to witness it first hand. This may have been true for Hemingway, whose novel 'The Old Man and Sea' is one of the greatest ever written and most of whose other works deal with death in many forms. I had a younger brother who died a quick violent death aged 16 and a father who died a lingering one at 42. I was there for both. Indeed, now that I'm in my seventies I seem to attend more funerals than christenings or weddings. I feel no urgent requirement to witness death of man or beast in order to make my fiction believable and I certainly cannot any add further insight to the mystery we must all face one day. I am no Hemingway and would not wish to moralise on a great writer's opinions, even though they differ from my own. Hemingway won the Noble Prize for Literature and were he still with us I'm sure he would not care what others felt about bull fighting.

Sunday, ah, Sunday. The ring is put to a very different use. On Sunday there is the Pasion de Cabellos, the Horse Passion, when riders and their mounts put on a show that is truly magnificent. Firstly, there is the pageantry. Each male rider in his colourful traje corto - waistcoat - a doma vaquera jacket and tight, high-waisted  pantalon caireles. Then there are the slim, poker-backed haughty Andalucian women in culottes skirts, those short-brimmed calanes hats tipped to one side, looking down at any passerby with an unsmiling expression. (Oh, how I love those superior females! High boots, cold eyes, postures worthy of a queen.) The skill of both sexes on horses with silken manes and tails flying, the muscles beneath their gleaming coats rippling with each walk, trot or canter, would astonish a Parthian warrior. These horses have prancing hooves and dancing eyes, and seem have entertainment in their bones. Beautiful beasts in the eyes of men, whom they have served since antiquity. I would not like to say for definite whether they enjoy giving a performance to a crowd of excited humans, but it would certainly appear so. When riderless they trot around the ring, nodding and giving the odd sideways flick of a hoof, as the applause showers down on them.

Perhaps there is something a little hypocritical about avoiding a bull fight, yet enjoying watching a horse being forced to carry another creature on its back? We humans have complex minds and even more complex emotions. There may be beauty in both, but one is about pain and death, and the other about energy and life.