On sitting in cafes thinking of writers.

The book 'Oases' by the late Scottish writer Alastair Reid is probably the book I have given most to people. I met Alastair when I spent three days in New York with himself and my uncle, the late Dr Finlay Macleod, to film a documentary about him and his work.

Alastair had a big influence on me in many ways, in how he approached life and writing. Maybe it was also the age I was when I met Alastair. I was embarking on a long trip to South America, among other places, and for a short while in my life I felt as unencumbered as he was - few belongings (enough to fill a bag), spending my time writing and being a foreigner. I wrote about the trip where I met Alistair in this post.

We would correspond occasionally after that trip. I would write to his address at the New Yorker, and some time after, a reply would arrive in Lewis. He always talked about my uncle and how struck he was by the fact that one day Finlay was with him in New York and the next, my uncle would be on a beach in Lewis. There was something in the contrast which he found magical. Maybe it was because he had spent so much time at sea, in the Navy and on other voyages across the Atlantic, that his sense of time and travel had never adjusted to that of planes.

Alastair clarified for me, the excitement of learning languages. He explores it in his book 'Whereabouts - Notes on Being a Foreigner'.

"Moving between several languages... only dramatises what happens all the time within our own language... If voices are anything to go by, then the idea of having a fixed firm self is wildly illusory... For a writer, it is an invaluable holiday to speak in the course of a day, a language other than the one he writes in. When he comes to use his own language, it seems washed and clean."

Being a Gaelic speaker in Scotland, I sometimes feel like a foreigner. I experienced a school system which implicitly discounted this part of me. I still feel the damage of this. So to encounter someone who found such joy in living in different languages, it was wonderful.

On my trip to Latin America, I did a long journey across the Andes that Alastair suggested. I visited places he and the writers he talked about had been in. I visited Neruda's house in Valparaiso, with its many collections - from ship figureheads to giant signs from the shops of craftspeople, to insects under glass, seashells and musical instruments. I remember the wooden floor of Neruda's study creaking as I stood there looking at his books. Apparently he had it built that way, to resemble being on a ship. There was a long shelf of beautiful bound books - Encyclopedias - which he had bought with the money from his Nobel Prize.

I also sat in Jose Luis Borges' favourite cafe in Beunos Aires, every day I was in that city. I'm not sure why. A sort of pilgrimage. Some way to experience these writers more deeply. Maybe I was looking for something, trying to make sense of things. Trying to make sense of my own fictions. Steve Jobs said "you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards." In some sense this is true. In others, though, you can look forward to try and make sense of how you would like your planets to align.

Borges put it like this:

"A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fires, rooms, instruments, stars, horses and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face."

Iain F Macleod's Blog

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