Hiroshima – Carps, cranes and camphor trees

Hiroshima was included on the tour. We were to stay in Tokyo, Hakane (a beautiful lakeside hotel where we’d see Mount Fuji in the background, if the “shy lady” was showing her face), and then, on 10th and 11th September, we would stay in Hiroshima and finish in Kyoto.

I was apprehensive about Hiroshima. In New York, I avoided Ground Zero, and I didn’t do the tour of Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam, although I did once pay my respects to Allied POWs at the river Kwai war cemetery in Thailand.  I don’t watch videos of Aleppo, but I do donate to those who try to alleviate the misery there. I know what I think about war and nuclear weapons, I’ll sign any petition going and attend demonstrations – but face the evidence? Since having children (and that was a long time ago), I prefer not to.

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a souvenir pencil case for the committed Carps fan

But the British (Scottish) guide said: “You’ll love Hiroshima! The people have the best sense of humour! It’s always so lively! And the night we’re there, the Carps are playing!”

The local Hiroshimaniac (really) guide met us at the station, fresh from the zooming bullet train. Mitsu was tiny, with a hat like Chico Marx, and carried a red flag with a picture of a carp so that we could see her. Mitsu knew what we had come to see. But what mattered to her that day was the Hiroshima Carps game. They were to play the Tokyo Giants in the baseball league, and if they won it would be the first time they’d topped the league for 25 years.

As we went down an escalator, a small child coming up the other side with his parents shouted excitedly “Gaijin! Gaijin!” (a slightly pejorative word for “foreigners”). He was quickly shushed and we bowed and waved, no doubt grotesquely. Nobody had given us a second glance in Tokyo.

All four syllables of the name “Hiroshima” are stressed equally, which makes you say it very thoughtfully. And it has two World Heritage sights. We visited the older one first, about 35km away.

Do you have a mental image of old Japan? It may be the kimono’d geisha of Kyoto (where they are not called geisha). Or it may be the O-Torii gate on Miyajima. This beautiful island  is home to Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples built in the water and the forest. Despite the scaffolding (they’ve been maintaining these buildings since 1186) and the tourists (who included ourselves, after all – why do tourists always despise each other?) Miyajima was serene, a place for meditation. A minute away from the main sights were quiet woodland footpaths. The sun shimmered on the Seto Inland Sea.

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In the evening our plan was to eat okonomoiyaki, another of Mitsu’s local passions, and view the hypocentre site by night. We walked past coolly fashionable shops with few customers, but the bars were all full of red shirted baseball enthusiasts. In a slightly emptier one, we watched the chefs selecting fresh vegetables from a beautifully displayed pile, slicing and grilling them to perfection, creating small artworks served with an endearing mixture of diffidence and panache. A hapless colleague who spoke some English was called in from the street outside to deal with us. Thinking the Carps had won, we kept the poor man chatting while we finished our meal, but we’d misunderstood. On leaving the restaurant the atmosphere hit us! A large crowd, including our poor waiter as soon as he decently could, was glued to a large screen mounted above the door of the bar opposite. The match wasn’t over and it was very close! My partner could just about work out the rules of baseball, and as he explained what was happening even I – not a sport watcher – was infected with enthusiasm. We craned our heads: more people arrived behind us. Immediate, die hard Carps fans, we joined in the rising whoops of joy and the slow gasps of disappointment. A taxi tried to get through, the crowd parted courteously, the taxi crawled away. Some people at the front of the increasing mass turned round, gestured like conductors to an orchestra, and the entire crowd flowed silently into a sitting position on the immaculate pavements. Baseball bewilders me, but I knew when something bad happened (well, it was good for Tokyo) and we sighed as one. Then something good! Hooray! – and something else – and we’d won! The Carps had hiroshima-best-carps-win-picturewon the league for the first time in 25 years. How we cheered!

I was in Rome in 1982 when Italy won the World Cup and the atmosphere was similar: joyful innocence with no aggression at all. In Hiroshima fans celebrated by throwing beer over each other rather than drinking it, but as we walked past, the beer throwers stopped to allow us through, as long as we returned their ferociously muscular high fives. It was the most controlled delirium I have ever seen (and next morning not a trace of spilled alcohol remained).

Then the Peace Park, quiet and dark. The looming hulk of the A-Bomb dome, once the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, the only building at the hypocentre to survive, is now maintained exactly as it was on 6th August 1945. A few people walking about, stopping in appalled silence to read the information signs, gazing at the empty window sockets and the ruined dome, or simply on their way home from a late night at work. A homeless (perhaps) man, rooting in the hedge behind his bench. The moon on the river and and faint sounds of continued cheering  a few blocks away. That was then; this is now.

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The Peace Park by daylight, very calm. The children’s monument is just one of many. It was erected in memory of Sadako who survived the blast aged two, but nine years later developed leukaemia. In hospital she tried to fold 1000 paper cranes, in the traditional hope of one wish being granted. Now the monument is surrounded by a semicircle of murals made from thousands of tiny folded cranes sent from around Japan and the wider world. President Obama visited in May, the first serving US president to do so. He couldn’t come as close to the monuments as we did, for security reasons, but one of the paper crane murals shows him with a rainbow background. These now hackneyed hippy images still carry all their original weight, in Hiroshima. Mitsu reiterated that, whatever the US is doing elsewhere in the world, this was a hugely meaningful visit for the people of her city. You are invited to participate in the Paper Crane project here.

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Children’s memorial, with Obama mural far right

 

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The present day view from the A-Bomb dome across the river where many people died trying to cool their burns.

Lots of the victims were teenagers, who had been drafted into school based work gangs. Their job, ironically, was to help demolish old buildings to prevent the spread of fire after bombardments. Many are remembered in the Peace Museum. Display cases hold their burnt uniforms – one with a note to say she had sewn it herself, their satchels, books and sandals. The poignancy of those displays was heartrending that day and I find recalling it for the purposes of this piece quite overwhelming, cutting through my normal stylistic showing off and careful punctuation which feels just trivial. Though you could argue it’s a cause that deserves well crafted persuasive prose more than most.

Shinichi – just a toddler really, three years old – died playing on his tricycle in the yard. He was buried there, with Kimi, the little girl from next door, as their parents couldn’t bear the smell of bodies being burnt.Years later when they moved house and wanted to rebury the children, the iron tricycle was found intact with their bones. They donated it to the Peace Museum and the story can be shared with children you know, in Shin’s Tricycle. Shin would be 74 now, and no doubt an avid Carps fan, if he had survived.

Our guide Mitsu’s parents and grandparents survived. The Japanese government pays survivors a life pension at various levels depending on the severity with which they were affected, and according to Mitsu has looked after them well. (In contrast my father in law, a POW in Singapore, had to wait four decades for recognition from the MoD that his health had been affected.) Her aunt was badly burnt and disabled for life, although the friend she was walking next to was unharmed. Her grandmother had just time to grab a small Buddha from the shrine, and run outside. Her parents, fortunately, were both working outside the city, and immediately joined rescue parties, but the family did not know who had survived for many days or weeks. However in 2016 she and her parents were able to watch the Carps match together on TV. I may be labouring the contrast between past and present, triumph and tragedy, but on (as it happened) September 11th in Hiroshima it was very marked.

Rescue efforts and rebuilding began immediately, despite no power and extreme danger. (I wondered whether the Japanese, a nation of earthquake survivors, were more resilient and practical than other nations would have been. Fortunately there has so far been no way of knowing, but since 1945 scientists have developed nuclear bombs with more than 3,000 times the power of that unleashed on Hiroshima.)

And the camphor trees? hiroshima-camphor-treesAfter the bomb, people thought there would be no life again. Then, in the spring, the camphor trees came into leaf. This one’s a few metres west of the A-Bomb dome. They became a symbol of new life in Hiroshima. Many new trees were donated, but there are still around 170 that were A-bombed. They’re called Hibaku Jumoku, “survivor tree”, and identified by name plates.

Some members of the group we were with commented that the Japanese had also acted appallingly. In fact there’s a notice at the Peace Museum declaring they were wrong to attack Pearl Harbour. But that isn’t what the Peace Park and Museum are about. They’re about promoting peace, now, and remembering the horror of nuclear attack so that it will never happen again. If ever I have the chance to visit Nagasaki, I shall go.

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Please share this post or at least this image, as the card I picked up in the museum asks visitors to do.

The A-Bomb dome is the second World Heritage site in Hiroshima, and Mitsu said they were proud to have it. What can it be like to walk along the beautiful, tragic river every day to work or explain the monuments to your children? How can it be, now, to have the Peace Monuments as your main tourist attraction and a major source of revenue for a successful modern city? The Japanese don’t on the whole do therapy; they keep their troubles to themselves, work hard, and face forwards, so Hiroshima now gives the impression of a thriving, cheerful place I’d happily return to – partly to ride the fleet of trams from around the world, that brighten up the streets enough to convert anyone to tram spotting!

Although Mitsu said of course there had been long term mental health implications (and even had she not said that we would have known), Japan may have dealt with this disaster as well as any group of humans could. Let us hope no one need deal with it again.

© Jessica Norrie 2016

 

On packing for a novel

Although I love trips away and I’ve chosen to be a writer, packing a case and planning a novel both fill me with dread. But I’m not one to waste a good analogy.

I don’t know what to include. I’m worried I may end up marooned without something crucial, or humping around a dead weight of miscellaneous junk. Will my choices complement each other, or will they be out of place and pointless? What mood will I be in – light, careless, stressed, excited, energetic?
hat-and-umbrellaWill I stride up mountains and pen epic passages? If so I’d better take my strongest boots and most heroic thoughts. Or will I get stuck at some bureaucratic roadblock, with no way through from one chapter to the next without endless examination of my narrator’s identity and reasons for passing through? Will my inner critic let me vault such hurdles, only to shrug her shoulders and say, I’m lost?

For realism and to set the scene, a writer can note the climate. But how will the weather behave? Will my characters and I need rain coats or diaphanous gowns? How will I fare when the pests of the air sting on the long itchy nights / typos adn infelicities infest my exiled prose? I can pack mosquito repellent but I can’t pack my editor.

Who and where are my secondary characters? Will they just happen along, or have I planned to meet them? It’s the author’s privilege to ditch the Brexit bores, if that’s who the company turns out to be, but they can be tenacious chaps who hang around dulling my polished prose. A good guide book may help me avoid them, so in it goes.

How quickly will time pass? Do I need books, sketching materials, puzzles – aka subplots, illustrations, and red herrings? Or will my trip and my story be entertaining enough alone? Would such distractions impede or embellish?

I dither and wander and find displacement activities. Make a trifle, sand the kitchen counter, catch up with the book reviews I promised months ago. Anything but commit to what is going in that case/novel. (Tracy Chevalier describes this well in the Guardian.) In the end I wildly throw everything, essential or not, on the bed. I hurl more on top, chuck it out, bung it in again.. It’s a depressing muddle that will never fit and I sleep in the spare room that night.

Anyway, what case? I forgot I’d thrown it out as it was splitting. Ditto what flight bag? What about those transparent moments when everyone can see my intimate creams and ointments as I go through security? Am I writing a novel at all, or is the idea just too leaky and revealing? Would it be wiser not even to embark ?

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Departure day arrives. I must commit. I have a list on the computer, some of it out of date (cassette tapes? Trainer cups?) Likewise there’s a list of requirements for a novel: genre, characters (all grown ups now), setting, inciting incidents, five acts, themes, and – when I can finally leave the house – resolution. Nothing must be left behind.

At the airport I’m anxious and buy more paracetamol, forgetting I already have enough to kill off a whole series of victims.

Let’s cut to the last day of the trip/the end of my current writing journey. I’m pleased! I vow to visit again, spending more time in one place, paying more careful attention. I’ve acquired so much I have to force the case shut and buy a strong strap to keep everything together. The paraphernalia I added early in my stay are still protected by tissue wrappings: I’ve forgotten what these items are and they’ll take me by surprise when I unpack back home. Most are no good: what I thought an ideal Christmas present is actually tacky; that poignant incident I wrote the night we drank cocktails is schmaltz. The volatile scene created on the flight out will work, with some of the turbulence tamed; but the meandering chapter of the thirty-two hour Friday you live through when you get on a plane at midday in Tokyo and disembark at 3pm in London is too long and tired.There’s dirty washing to be done and careless prose to clean up and the only thing that will help is a cup of tea that tastes of home. My analogy has been baggage handled to breaking point, but souvenirs survive: a fine wine, a garment of exquisite comfort to be worn until it falls apart, photographs of beautiful, strange people and places. Enough to frame the rest of the story. Welcome to the start of making sense.

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© Jessica Norrie 2016

Has anyone seen my glasses?

On a creative writing course that I describe here, we were asked to write about a precious object, a talisman. Some people chose jewellery  – one had a wonderful wedding ring, full of mystery, that she’d bought (they’d bought) on eBay! But my Talisman is my glasses.

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I have worn glasses since I was 16. At first I tried to avoid them, shamefacedly extracting them from my bag to check the bus number as it approached the stop. Later I had to put them on more, and now almost all the time. Instinctively, I usually remove them when eating. And also since getting an electric toothbrush, as I spatter them with Colgate, and I’m not the sort of person who can ever lay their hands on any of that special lens cleaner that organised spectacleers have.

Without my glasses my world would be less and yet over the years I have made my glasses less too. My statement style shouted “Here I Am!” in the 1980s: I had stripy frames and bright pink frames and lenses like the dog with waterwheel eyes in the Hans Anderson fairy tale. But now they’re inconspicuous. I don’t want to feel them on my nose ridging the skin red and sore; I don’t want them hiding my eye colour, my lashes (which due to the side effects of some medication are growing! Bat, flutter, bat flutter – a bit grotesque but funny too.) I want my expression to be visible. No dissimulation nowadays, no false confidence. What YOU see is what you get.mumand ros with glassesMy all singing, all dancing varifocal’d shatter proof surface protected lightweight tinted lenses darken in the sun, which is when my expression does become impenetrable. A school child told me my dark glasses make me look like a detective and I like that, for they do enable me to see what’s afoot. Add a trench coat and a pipe and I’d be set to go.

peacock glasses 2In our house we don’t shout goodbye when we leave for work or study in the morning. Instead the last I hear from my “children” (they are so grown-up and so much taller than I am) is: “Your glasses are on the piano / your glasses are in the bathroom,” or simply: “Fruit bowl!” If they don’t call I am lost, for without my glasses on I cannot find my glasses. Now, oddly, I can find no photos of me wearing them with which to illustrate this post. Perhaps I’m as vain as this peacock.

Two years ago I was diagnosed with glaucoma in both eyes at exactly the same age as my mother before me. She went blind. Treatments have moved on and I shall probably not go blind (although at the rate my eyelashes are going they may soon screen the world) but it was a sign of ageing, a pointer to depression and suddenly I became aware of how sight based my day is. I wake and look around the messy room in dismay; I read a book; I browse my bloody phone; I read my emails; I wander to the shops (or drive); inspect the garden, and if the gods of fate are on my side I write some prose using a screen. How without sight will I find new ways to see?

Fruit bowl with glasses

Phrase book poetry

I took a nostalgic look through some old phrasebooks for the end of the holiday season:

 

Italian phrase bookGood morning! Which island is this? 

How deep is the water?

What does “vietato” mean?

You could have… (friendly form)

Help!

Potuguese phrase bookI like the weather here! I’d like to hire a sunshade. How much per hour?

When will you come to fix the air conditioning? 

HOW much per hour?

I’m (very) hot!

 

Turkish phrase bookWhere are the English books? How much per page? 

I’d like to hire a motorbike.

 The teller machine took my card.

You could ask them for a discount…I am not haggling 

 

Greek phrase booksI’m starving! 

Boiled hen and mixed contours…yellow creamy cheese. I’m on a special diet, I ate sushi.

Enjoy your drinks. How old is this wine?

Where are the facilities?

 

Polish phrase bookDo you want to dance?

What time shall we meet? Where will we meet? Let’s meet at…

That went very well. Yes I do (understand).

Sweet dreams.

 

Japanese phrase bookThe film is stuck. I prefer arthouse films

A bit more off here, please.

This seat is taken, sorry.

I will sit on the floor.

I have my own mattress.

French phrase book

 

The room is dirty.

Is there any mail for me?

Please tell him I called. I don’t know his name.

I’m pregnant.

No I don’t (understand).

 

Goodbye. Sayonara. Au revoir. 

Farewell.

 

After I had “written” this poem, I discovered a much, much, much better one which departs from a similar idea: “Phrase book” by Jo Shapcott.

© Jessica Norrie 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harry Potter and the Athenian Quest

My children were the same age, more or less, as Harry Potter, and grew up with him, their interests and concerns maturing alongside his. It was Harry Potter who got my son Robert – for years more into cartoons and articles about football – to grips with reading long, unillustrated texts, paving the way for Philip Reeve and Philip Pullman later on.

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In 2007, Robert and I went away, to join a group, none of whom we knew yet, on an activity holiday with plenty to offer both of us. I never went on holiday without lots of reading matter, and took what I thought were “good” books along for him as well, but without much hope that he’d read them. In pre Kindle days it was a heavy, bulky labour of love.

Rob seemed sad in the days before we left. He liked the holiday idea, but was upset because the final Harry Potter book was due out the day after we were to leave. When he returned all his friends would have read it, and he anticipated having to hide himself away until he’d finished it too, or they’d tell him what had happened. Rumour had it this was going to be a thick book, so he’d be hidden away a long time. Even if he avoided  friends and the media, how would we stop his sister spilling the Bertie Bott’s every flavour beans?

There was no way to get it before we left. Bookshops had strict confidentiality agreements, stocks were locked up at secret locations, copies couldn’t be pre-ordered for dispatch to a remote Greek island, reachable only by several coaches and two ferry trips after flying to Athens. Rob was philosophical, but by taking us out of the UK on such an occasion, I had blundered, and I felt guilty. He packed the other books in silent, dreary politeness.

At Heathrow there was the usual dull hanging about after check in. HP bpopks 1-6Harry Potter posters popped up everywhere. News on the terminal monitors showed children and adults queuing up outside bookshops due to open at midnight, being interviewed about how excited they were. The airport shop windows were swathed in paper, ready for a grand unveiling – just after our plane was due to leave. You could buy the other six – but those we’d read already.

A delay was announced. Hope glimmered: we might be able to buy a copy. But we were called to the departure lounge. There we sat, bored and frustrated, in no man’s land, away from the bright lights of the shopping concourse, but not airborne yet either. My son grew quieter and quieter. I felt more and more guilty.

The plane was called, over five hours late. We arrived in Athens, trailed miserably through customs and got to our hotel as dawn was breaking. There was to be a late morning ferry from Piraeus, and the tour operators postponed breakfast so we could get an hour of sleep in the rooms we’d paid for and expected to use all night. Rob crashed out straight away, jaded and fed up. It was very, very hot.

I thought hard. My father had been a bookseller, and I knew about big events in the publishing world. Here we were in a European capital – there had to be a bookshop somewhere eager to conjure euro treasure from a pile of pristine Harry Potters. Leaving Rob asleep, I went to try and find one.

After my sleepless night, my eyes felt gritty and my tummy wasn’t quite behaving. I had rather a large sum of cash on me that I should really have left in the bedroom safe but I was too exhausted to think straight. I wandered away from the hotel, whose name I instantly forgot. After one block I realised all the street names were written in the Greek alphabet and I’d have no idea how to get back unless I noted some landmarks. Ah – SEX SHOP! screamed huge red readable capitals on the corner. That would have to do. I was just off Syntagma Square, but I’d never been to Athens before and didn’t realise. I’d left my 13  year old son sleeping, oblivious to my absence in a foreign city, we had to be at breakfast within an hour or we’d miss the coach transfer, and I’d prioritised a lone quest in a strange place for a book from another country… It’s not what the parenting manuals advise.

I crossed to a more salubrious side of the square and chose a road at random. Abracadabra! There was a bookshop, the owner just opening the shutters! In the window – two different editions of the new Harry Potter, child and adult. I rushed in, I gabbled, I almost kissed the man, I explained my son’s narrow escape from being marooned on a Harry Potter-less island! He was a serious chap and didn’t respond with due appreciation of the miracle he’d wrought. That would be 33 euros and would I like it gift wrapped? 33 euros! But I didn’t hesitate. I paid, fairly danced back to the hotel and woke Rob, who was very grumpy.

“We have to go to breakfast,” I said.”Can you fit another book in your case, I’ve no space?”

“I’m not hungry and I don’t want more books, we’ve got loads already.”

“OK,” I said. “I’ll see if someone else wants it then, it’s ever so big and I can’t carry it myself.” I let him catch a glimpse.

It was one of those moments that sum up what motherhood is about. Rob shot up from the bed, yelling: “HARRY POTTER!” Later on the ferry, someone saw him reading it and word travelled. “How did you get THAT?” An English crowd gathered in wonder.

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Robert had immediate kudos on that holiday. Some savvy people were having it flown out from the UK, but it wouldn’t be there for at least five days and he had a head start. They queued up to persuade him to pass it on to them when he’d finished it. They pestered him to know what was happening until he pointed out that if they left him to it, he’d be able to pass the book on sooner. In the end, he chose a pleasant, mild man, perhaps in his mid thirties, for his successor, buried himself in HP emerging only to swim, wind surf and eat and steadfastly refused to divulge any secrets.

Back in London, two months later, a large parcel arrived out of the blue. It contained a generous selection of recent feature film DVDs. There were hours of entertainment for the whole family as the nights drew in and wind surfing became a distant memory. With the gift was a note: “To Robert. Thank you so much for making my holiday so special by choosing me to read your Harry Potter book after you. Wishing you and your family well for the future. Yours, D.”

Wishing you well too, D, wherever you are. What a great time we all had in the end. It was our first holiday without his father and sister, so it could have been disastrous. There was that delayed start, and the teenagers I’d expected would be company for Rob all turned out to be toddlers. Instead the adults with their shared Harry Potter interest helped him to grow up and he’s now a singer songwriter, telling his own stories in his wonderful voice, while the setting inspired my own first novel too.

 

© Jessica Norrie 2016