Long shots at short stories

I don’t go searching for short story inspiration, because although the imaginary ideal me often writes short stories, the real one only claims to. But occasionally a prompt pops up. Once, around 1982, it was a double bed in a Paris shop window. I was amazed by this cheaply made, ambitiously intended piece of furniture, with curlicues and carvings adorning each cream coloured plastic leg and corner. Shaded lamps were built into the looming headboard and incorporated bShort storiesedside tables featured radio cassette players and circular indents, the kind ships have to stop crockery sliding about in rough seas. The designers presumably anticipated lots of inbed activity.

I was so intrigued I got off my bus and walked back to inspect the bed more closely. Then for years in my head I developed a story of a young, pious couple without wealth, who are engaged to be married. One Sunday afternoon, out for a chaste stroll, they pass the same shop window and get it into their heads they can’t wed until they can buy this bed to bless their union. They save and save, but hopes of enough money become ever more distant…someone else buys the bed…they grow older and her reproductive years pass…they never marry. Like 1980s Chekhov, it would have been, had I written it.

JapanThe idea may have come from a fellow student in a shared house the previous year. This lovely, rather single minded Essex boy had never been out of the UK (not so unusual then). But his dream was to go to Japan, and he practiced for it, cooking tofu and miso in a wok, wearing a yukata, learning kanji, and saving frantically. He worked long hours in possibly the first Japanese restaurant in Brighton and did well: after six months he had over £200, a significant sum in 1980. Then he saw a state of the art sleeping bag in a travel shop, bought it for around £198, continued practising for his travels by sleeping in it every night until it was too worn to take anywhere… and was back at the beginning again, financially. (He did get there later, married a Japanese  woman and has had a good career, but my short story version would have been more poignant.)

In 1994, just after my son was born, a close friend was expecting a boy too. Our toddler Bobdaughters played together and we hoped for a similar friendship between our sons. Then her little boy was stillborn. In his memory I incorporated her descriptions into a story based around this juxtaposition of happiness and loss. I sent it with my friend’s permission to (I think) Good Housekeeping, but it wasn’t accepted.

Fast forward to 2013 and I did complete a second short story, following a mundane visit to a jeweller for a watch strap. clock 2Behind the counter I was surprised to see shelves packed with the type of clocks I didn’t know were still made, travelling alarms with attached coloured cases, Mickey Mouse clocks for children, faces with large numerals, Roman numerals, nothing digital. They were all priced and for sale, apparently without irony. But who would ever buy them? The shop had run out of time. My story, full of portentous time related imagery, about how the shop is not rescued by a Mary Portas type guru who gives it a makeover for reality TV, didn’t win the competition (Good Housekeeping again?) I submitted it to.

Two stories, two failures (in publishing terms). I gave up.

Until this year. Our Vienna trip provided an idea. We’d been to Mozart’s house, all bright display cases, clever montages, headphoned commentaries. We were unmoved. treble clef and mozartYou couldn’t sense the composer here, although the cheerful and informative staff would sell you Mozart chocs, jigsaws of musical scores, playing cards, and even a treble clef washing up scourer (the house warming present your musician friends always wanted). But the flat where Schubert died was another matter. We walked down a long, quiet street opposite the Majolika Haus, thinking we might be in the wrong place. The shops were closed and there was no-one about. We buzzed to enter the solid main doors, and climbed two flights of narrow internal stone steps. Quiet landings overlooked a quieter courtyard, the Schubert flat looking no different to the others. We rang Schubert’s doorbell. His own doorbell! (Well no, obviously.) In the lobby of the silent flat a young man sat behind the counter with a dull choice of postcards. My attempts at conversation met with a wordless response, but he did hand us an explanatory leaflet in English.

 

After the lobby there are two main rooms, not large, landing view and street view. One holds a few display cases with copies of documents written by Schubert and an inventory of his belongings at the time of his death. The other has his piano (see a previous post) and a console permitting visitors to listen to a small choice of badly reproduced recordings. I allowed the Mass in E flat to warble back through some elderly headphones for a while, but couldn’t turn it off and the soundtrack followed us into the third, smaller room, where Schubert died, possibly of typhoid fever, possibly complicated by the effects of syphilis and the mercury treatment he’d taken for it. His brother Ferdinand took him in and he was nursed at times by his thirteen year old niece. Ferdinand, his wife and children had moved into the newly built apartment only very shortly before, and the still wet plaster probably worsened Franz Schubert’s symptoms.

There were no other visitors. The ordinary apartment, the sparse displays, the bursts of beautiful, distorted music, the unfurnished room where the 31 year old composer died, the terrible start to the family’s life in a new home, presented without drama or sentimentality – no wonder the young curator was so reserved. Did he love Schubert’s music, and resent interruptions by the rare visitors? Did he want his museum to have the prestige and razzmatazz of Mozart’s? Was he oppressed or uplifted by the atmosphere, and did he have his own thwarted dreams? There may, one day, be a short story there, and if I could connect the themes of beauty, lyricism and malign fate with even a shadow of the musical interweavings in Schubert’s string quartets, I would have no need of rewards and prizes to feel proud of myself.

 

 

(I’m grateful for additional information to The Life of Schubert, by Christopher Gibbs.)

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

For Eggheads in search of answers…

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Oh dear! People said my Easter Eggheads Book Quiz was too hard! I didn’t mean to scramble anyone’s brains. Here are the answers, so you can pretend you knew them all along and pass on the pain to your friends:

  1. Who printed a story in which a “good wyf” from Southern England thought a merchant from the North was speaking French, because he asked for eggys which she knew as eyren?  The clue was in the verb, to print. The printer was William Caxton in 1490, and he tells the story to illustrate the (unchanged) difficulties of a proofreader and typesetter, in his prologue to the Eneydes (Virgil’s Aenid). This had already been translated from Latin to French and he was now printing an English version. Actually I found the reference on a post about Shrove Tuesday, here.
  2. 41kgazntxvl-_sx307_bo1204203200_Who shouted “What, you egg! […] Young fry of treachery!” and what is he doing to whom as he shouts it? […] is the moment in Act 4, scene 2 of Macbeth when the first murderer stabs Lady MacDuff’s son. The murderer calls the young boy “you egg” to show he represents the next generation.
  3. Which Shakespearean hero shares his name with a famous egg dish? This is Benedict (aka Benedick), from Much Ado About Nothing. Eggs Benedict is an American dish invented by a Wall Street broker, and has absolutely nothing ado with Shakespeare. 
  4. Who rode westward on Good Friday 1613? Good Friday, 1613. Riding westward is a poem by the metaphysical poet John Donne. It begins: Let mans Soule be a Spheare… I didn’t know this poem either until I found the reference in an excellent Guardian article about Easter in Literature.
  5. 406373Who met Mephistopheles during an Easter walk with his friend Wagner? Goethe’s hero Faust was out walking at Easter with his friend Wagner, when they met a poodle who followed them home and turned out to be the devil in disguise. Faust then made a famous pact with him. Faust was first published in 1808, so if you were thinking of a more famous Wagner, the composer Richard, I’m afraid that was a red herring – he wasn’t born until 1813. But the moral of the story is, take care around poodles.
  6. At the beginning of which children’s story from 1854 is the King of Paflagonia so absorbed in a letter from the King of Crim Tartary “that he allows his eggs to get cold, and leaves his august muffins untasted“? This is the delightful The Rose and the Ring: a Fireside pantomime, by W M Thackeray. Politically incorrect fun still, as old Countess Gruffanuff falls for young Prince Giglio. Thackeray’s illustrations are very funny too.  612b231allql-_sl500_sx319_bo1204203200_
  7. Which Victorian artist was described by his friend Charles Dickens as “sweet-tempered, humorous, conscientious, thoroughly good, and thoroughly beloved“? Who other than the pre-Raphaelite painter Augustus Leopold Egg, whose name I had wrongly remembered as a character in a Dickens novel.
  8. What was the name of Raffles’ sidekick? Bunny” Manders is Watson to Raffle’s Holmes in the series of novels by Victorian writer E W Hornung. No, I haven’t read them either.
  9. Who told Alice in Wonderland “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean“? Humpty Dumpty, when she met him sitting on a wall, in Alice through the Looking Glass. They argue about it and he cracks first.83346
  10. Which decadent hero lived in West Egg? Jay Gatsby, from Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. West (and East) Egg are fictional settlements of nouveaux riches and old money, based on similar places in Long Island. 
  11. Which seminal moment in Irish history forms the subject matter for Sean O’Casey’s play The Plough and the StarsThe Easter Uprising against the British took place in Dublin in April 1916. 15 Irish nationalists identified as leaders were afterwards executed at Kilmainham Jail. Whether they are described as traitors or heroes depends very much which historical or literary account you read.
  12. 18076Who “came down to breakfast one morning, lifted the first cover he saw, said ‘Eggs! Eggs! Eggs! Damn all eggs!’ in an overwrought sort of voice, and instantly legged it for France, never to return to the bosom of his family?” This was Lord Worplesdon, described in Jeeves Takes Charge by P G  Wodehouse. You could read it, or watch the BBC series where Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie acted Jeeves and Wooster just spiffingly.
  13. In which novel by Agatha Christie is there a character called Egg? Hermione Lytton Gore is nicknamed and always referred to as “Egg” in Three Act Tragedy, a Christie novel of 1934. There’s always another Christie novel you haven’t read…
  14. 4025Who liked “a speckled brown egg from a French Marans hen, boiled for exactly three and a third minutes” for breakfast? This is James Bond, described in From Russia with Love. My source was another Guardian article, on breakfasts in literature
  15. Which very sad black comedy originally starred Albert Finney and has been revived since with Clive Owen, Eddie Izzard and Miriam Margolyes among others in its cast? The original play was A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, by Peter Nichols in 1967, about the daily routines of parents with a very severely disabled daughter.
  16. When could you next hope to see the Oberammergau Passion Play? It’s only performed every ten years, and the next one will be in 2020.
  17. What colour were Sam-I-am’s eggs? Green! Read Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss to find out if Sam-I-Am ever does persuade the child to eat them.51n595qwkol-_sx360_bo1204203200_
  18. Who wrote the original story and script for “The Long Good Friday”? This 1980 gangster movie was scripted from his own screenplay by Barrie Keefe.
  19. What hatched at the beginning of a story from an egg lying on a moonlit leaf? Eric Carle’s Very Hungry Caterpillar, going strong since 1969.  I couldn’t quote the first page exactly as it would be too high a percentage of the entire text to pass without copyright infringement, but most parents and teachers should have recognised this. The first bedtime story I ever read to my babies, I’ve also taught it at evening classes for adults in French and Spanish. They tell me it did wonders for their fruit shopping vocabulary.4948
  20. Who made the assorted sweets from which if you were very unlucky, you might pick out a rotten egg flavoured one? This was one of the less sought after flavours of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans, which you could buy in  sweet shops frequented by Harry Potter and his fellow Hogwartians.

A question some of you may have found easier: Which Bennet sister visited Rosings on “Easter-day” and was told by Lady Catherine de Burgh that she would never play the piano really well?

A question I completely forgot to ask, which would have brought my quiz more up to date: Which depressed egg is a Japanese cartoon Superhero?

Do let me know if you can think of any more. The deadline’s a week before Easter 2018, whenever that is.

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Here’s another egg quote, from the Arden Dictionary of Shakespeare Quotations, compiled by jane Armstrong

©Jessica Norrie 2017

Narratives from the riverbank.

592657Of all landscape features, it seems to me a river is the one that lends itself best to carrying a narrative, either the whole story (Three Men in a Boat or Deliverance), or departures and episodes that hook the reader like a helpless fish. Think how Dickens starts Our Mutual Friend with Lizzie Hexham and her father rowing along looking for dead bodies in the Thames, and how in Oliver Twist the events leading to Bill Sykes murdering Nancy begin at London Bridge. (The Victorian Web has a fascinating discussion of the setting.) Alice in Wonderland begins on the banks of the river Isis, which is where the real Alice and Lewis Carroll sat as he told the original tales, fortunately over a century before Inspector Morse started fishing bodies out of it. Mole starts the The Wind in the Willows  by falling in, Ratty saves him, and then they just go with the flow.

More grimly The Bridge over the River Kwai was a bestseller, about POWs in the Far East, and competing for grimness is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, set in the Congo. Surely it’s no accident that these settings have inspired such successful films.

More books set on or by rivers are discussed here, and picture books here. For older children I’d add two favourites. Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken is the second in a long series of wonderful adventures.The rightful heir to the throne is rescued from a sinking barge on the Thames by art students in a hot air balloon! Only Joan Aiken could fit so much drama into one chapter – and that isn’t really a spoiler, as there is so much else in the story both before and after that episode.

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“Battersea Castle”  from “Black Hearts in Battersea”, 1992 Red Fox edition

The second is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie. Her family have to cross a river on a hastily made raft of wooden logs, in their covered wagon drawn by ponies. (Memory says it was the Mississippi, but the book’s gone on a journey of its own so I can’t check.) During the crossing the river rises in a flash flood and the ponies must swim for it. On another occasion the horses pull the wagon across an apparently ice bound lake. Half way across the ice begins to give way…These stories were based on true events of her pioneer childhood.

Unless there’s a drought, a river flows along episodically, with a start and an end (an open end, as it flows into the sea), changing as it moves along, a place of work and pleasure, danger and refreshment. The river at Hiroshima represented salvation to victims of the A Bomb: For my burning body the cold water of the river was as precious as the treasure. Now it’s a calm, serene and beautiful place, with cranes (birds not machines!) and riverside walks.

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The Map that came to Life sends two children on a walk with a large scale Ordnance Survey map. On the way they cross, encounter, climb and wade through various landscape features and pass significant and domestic buildings. Similarly, in Kyoto, Japan the Kamogawa River came to life as we walked along it and I tell the story in the photos below. It flows between wide sloping green banks. We descended steps to the path beside it, and immediately the roaring traffic was quieter, the air cleaner, and the sky wider. It’s too shallow for boats, but stepping stones led across and we saw them in use. We met a man walking his dog who was delighted I wanted a photo (I think they both were).

There is only one wooden bridge left among the stone ones, but there were rows of old wooden teahouses, bars and homes, and because Kyoto has  a “no high rise” policy the modern flats were not (too) intrusive. After bowing our thanks to the man with the dog we came to another man doing T’ai Chi, echoing the serenity with his controlled, beautiful movement. By the next bridge a flautist trilled on one bank, playing call and response with a violinist opposite. Herons, very close, swooped to pull gleaming fish from the water and there were butterflies with huge orange wings. A volunteer (I presume) group of elderly Japanese were out weeding and picking up the rare litter, too busy to greet us. On the far bank we saw an artist painting the riverside buildings, his back turned to a second artist… who had set up his easel in the water itself, the bottom edge of the canvas barely above the surface.

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And then we came up the steps, past the tramp with a huge pile of bags in a trolley at the top, and back into the heat and traffic above. We’d been offered an oasis full of characters. Long may their stories continue, and may the river add new ones every day.

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© Jessica Norrie 2016

Inspired by Miss Happiness and Miss Flower

This writing blog got diverted and may seem more like a travel blog, so let me, Japanese fashion, impose some order. (Travelling followers picked up recently, please do stay on board: I think our interests coincide.) Hiroshima was so striking I wanted to deal with it first, but now back to what I read to complement my trip.

Why did I go to Japan? My fascination arose from childhood, and a book called Miss Happiness and Miss Flower by Rumer Godden. A small girl receives a present of two Japanese dolls, and her cousin models a house for them to live in.

Of course it’s dated now. Girls may design and work with wood as much as boys; children, sadly, no longer go to the high street by themselves to find information at the bookshop (so few local bookshops remain, for one thing). But nevertheless it was a delight to reread, thirty or more years later, the night before leaving for Japan.

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Geiko dancers on stage in Kyoto

Rumer Godden deals, with a light touch, on culture shock and homesickness and efforts by both sides to integrate. The children Nona and Tom understand the dolls need a home different from British homes, where the walls slide and discrete areas may be screened or opened up according to temporary considerations. Everything must be polite and ordered, and there is beauty in small, humble moments – one flower in a tiny vase, a scrap of silk for a pillow. The dolls have very human characteristics; Miss Happiness is optimistic and can accept hardship;  Miss Flower is nervous, can’t believe a foreigner can understand her and is so grateful and gracious when the foreigner attempts to do so. In a bonus for those with a talent for carpentry, the book includes instructions on how to make a Japanese doll’s house.

Dolls and puppets are important in Japanese culture, and feature in the next novel I read. Junichiro Tanizaki is a classic Japanese author, and Some Prefer Nettles was published in 1928. I returned to Tanizaki after another absence of thirty years, having as a teenager adored his epic The Makioka Sisters, about a family of sisters living in Osaka (It’s comparable, perhaps, with Lorca’s House of Bernarda Alba, Chekhov’s Three Sisters and any number of green spined Virago Modern Classics. Or even Jane Austen). 51jqirzmz2l

I wasn’t disappointed. Here again was the clear prose; the economical, poetic images conveying in one line as much as a page of Western description; psychology rendered through gestures, clothing, or choices of food and drink. Tanizaki’s characters think carefully about the design of every object they use, in order to enhance the experience in anticipation, during use, and and in memory. It’s a centuries old Japanese trait that continues today- think of Japanese technology, or think of a Zen garden.

In Some Prefer Nettles, a couple are preparing for divorce. There is no animosity between Kaname and Misako, they are simply tired of each other, but they have a child and an elderly father to consider. And so they proceed with care, with resignation, almost hoping to be denied the pleasure they seek, if it will help diminish the shock to the order of things. Meanwhile there are doll festivals and puppet theatre outings in which their situation is reflected through age old Japanese culture. (The puppets are life size and operated by up to three puppet masters at a time: I saw the one below at the theatre in Kyoto.)

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The husband, Kaname, was brought up in old Tokyo “before the earthquake” (of 1923) and harks increasingly towards tradition; the wife seeks modernity but remains adept at selecting his kimonos and arranging  flowers for the shrine. “He looked down on her, a sort of mute regret rising in him, without fear of meeting her eyes…..The early cherries were just coming into bloom.” It’s a beautiful, elegiac portrait of a society and a marriage, with a surprising number of echos for the contemporary Western reader.

41uvfhb2pslI considered reading Murakami, having found the same simple, limpid prose quality in Norwegian Wood, but felt I should explore a wider range of Japanese novelists and discovered Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami. Where Tanizaki told a story of modern marriage in a traditional society, this book, set in contemporary Tokyo, tells of timeless romance under modern conditions. A youngish woman meets her old teacher by chance, and he’s now retired and a widower. As with Tanizaki, you can open any page at random and be sure of finding elegiac, gentle prose, a yearning quality: the teacher’s name is Sensei and the narrator murmurs and repeats it just for the joy in the sound of the name. There’s the design commitment again: practical details investing everyday items with a touch of poetry. “The hot spiciness of the crackers really did go quite well with saké…I heard a faint chirping and then the sound of the leaves on the branches rustling for a moment, and then it was quiet again.” I suspect this simple beauty is a quality of the Japanese language, or it may be something that happens in the interface when Japanese is translated into English. But both novels – in which not a huge amount happens – are immensely clear, readable, universal and moving despite the significant cultural differences between us.

I read these two novels on my return. While I was in Japan, I read Motions and Moments, the third essay collection by Michael Pronko, an American professor who has made his home in Tokyo. At first I found these illuminating: as we moved around Tokyo I recognised quirks that he (affectionately) identifies. I was helped to understand certain customs through his intermediary insights; I enjoyed his descriptions of Japanese gardening (they use tiny secateurs like nail scissors to clip their shrubs with minute precision) and understood what he meant by getting lost in Tokyo “vertically as well as horizontally”. The first two parts of the book (Surfaces and Miniatures) were well written, witty and informative. Part 3, Constructs, could have used some editorial help with, er, construction (and I’m aware he acknowledges the help of Newsweek editors at the end). Perhaps by then I was too immersed in the spare beauty of Japanese expression to enjoy American verbosity and repetition. But it’s worth a read if you are going to Tokyo.

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Tokyo street scene

© Jessica Norrie 2016

 

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.

cranes
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