WALKING AWAY – or the ephemeral nature of being

The image of someone walking away into the distance has stirred my artistic sensibilities since early adulthood. I’ve returned to the subject photographically and in paint pretty regularly since about 1979, from when the first picture presented here dates (Astrud at Tel Hai).

Several of these pictures are of loved ones, past and current, walking into a variety of landscapes, urban and open, and I guess that with them in particular, powerful feelings of vulnerability, both as a partners and individuals are aroused.

Two of the photos here have special poignancy: The one of my mother Hannah with my grandfather Harry was taken on a stroll in my home town of Edgware in the early 80’s when they both still had many years to live. I took the photo on my old Cannonette camera by accident. I was meaning to line up a shot of the lake we were passing when I must have clicked the shutter too early. It was only when the film came back from the developers that I saw the photo, and even then I instantly realised that it was a happy accident in that it had somehow captured the essence of them and their relationship in a way that no face-on portrait ever could have matched. The fact they are both now dead has made this image increasingly precious to me as the years have passed. The picture of my wife Dido walking her old and frail father into his house in Little Rock is even more poignant in that it represents the last photo of them ever taken together. About an hour later we returned to the airport, never to see him again.

All the pictures here, even those of total strangers, like the chap on Hampstead Heath, have a quiet melancholia about them in that they share a sense of our human transience.

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MY POSTER PHASE…

For a while during the late 1980’s and early 90’s there was a resurgence of classic poster design in British commercial illustration. For about ten years add agencies got a nostalgia pang for the poster images of the early half of the century—especially the great travel posters of companies like Cunard and P&O.

Photo-sourced images, distilled into simple, screen-print-like blocks of colour were once again all the rage which meant for me, as a keen exponent of the form, a fairly regular stream of commissions.

One of these days, when I’ve completed the transfer of all my old work copy onto a digital platform I’ll put up one or two gallery posts showing the sort of stuff I did for the likes of Thomas Cook and Legal & General.

For now, here is a small gallery of highly disparate images I made for my own pleasure and exhibition.

They comprise a truly odd bunch, including as they do some kind of anti-communist poster (can’t recall if it’s aimed at Russia or China?) and a slightly weird self-portrait of me looking very miserable (suffering with heat-stroke) at a bus stop in Israel. Somewhere, I have dozens of colour slides of many more, less quirky; mostly travel related images which are now all happily sold. They too await digital conversion.

Meanwhile, these are fun—I think!

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TEL AVIV MEMORIES

A small gallery of images of Tel Aviv from the late 70’s and early 80’s. Colourful, ramshackle, exotic and cosmopolitan even then, the seeds were well sewn for the exciting, “happening” city we know today…

(camera used: Nikon FE with Ektachrome and Agfachrome)

IMPRESSIONS – NETANYA BEACH

The Israeli coastal town of Netanya sits on high sandstone cliffs above one of the most spectacular beaches anywhere on the eastern Mediterranean seaboard. The 12 images presented here reflect the beach’s vivid and colourful mood over a time-span covering the last four decades.

NETANYA – SUN, SEA AND SAND – VARIATIONS ON AN ISRAELI THEME

THE GREAT THING ABOUT PHOTOSHOP IS THAT IT MAKES THE EDITING OF PHOTOS AS IMPORTANT AS TAKING THEM. IT ALSO MEANS THAT ONE CAN OFTEN EXTRACT / ABSTRACT GOOD MATERIAL FROM OTHERWISE ORDINARY SHOTS. THIS GALLERY OF “VIRTUAL GOUACHES” OF THE ISRAELI COASTAL TOWN OF NETANYA ILLUSTRATES THIS PERFECTLY – ALTHOUGH I MUST ADMIT THE INCREDIBLE SENSOR ON MY CANON CERTAINLY HELPS BRING OUT THE DETAIL…

THE SONS OF KOHATH – EXCERPTS – Part 2

I PRESENT HERE THE SECOND IN SERIES OF SIX EXCERPTS FROM MY NEW NOVEL (Paperback available from Amazon and on Kindle and to order online from selected bookstores)

THE SONS OF KOHATH

Tragedy, Travesty, Tapas and the Ark of God

14

Miguel and Loli Garcia had a traditional Castilian style villa in the comfortable middle class Aravaca suburb on the western side of Madrid.

Driving into Aravaca filled Alex with bitter-sweet nostalgia. It was where he had spent the first eighteen years of his life.

An only child, Alex was a rare species in post-war Spanish suburbia. This combined with a mostly absent and philandering father and a mother who suffered from what would eventually be diagnosed as clinical depression resulted in him developing a high degree of self-resourcefulness from a young age.

His favourite strategy for coping with the dullness and melancholy of his home life was through his innate interest in history.

As his interest developed into a passion, his bedroom transformed over the years into a library of history books, each one a portal through which he could escape Aravaca into exotic past worlds filled with colour and adventure.

In common with most Spanish kids, history began for Alex with the legendary hero El Cid, but unlike his peers, Alex was far more interested in discovering the actual history behind the legend than in the legend itself. The Cid was merely a stepping stone for him into the world of medieval Europe. And after devouring medieval Europe he travelled further back and further east to the stories of Rome, then Greece and ultimately, via Persia, Babylon and Egypt, the origins of civilization itself upon the marshlands of ancient Sumer and the central Asian Steppe.

By the time Alex was fourteen, driven on by an ambition to read the Cambridge Ancient History, he already had a prodigious grasp of English. And by the time he was half way through the tenth volume he had decided that he would get his master’s degree and his PhD in the same town where the book was published. So determined was he in this aspiration that he spurned earlier offers from both Princeton and then Oxford on the off chance that a place would materialise at Cambridge.

When it finally did, six agonising weeks after he had turned down Oxford he was so overjoyed he even managed to cheer up his mother sufficiently to convince her to go out with him for a celebratory supper in town.

His time at Cambridge followed by spells in Seville and London merely confirmed how suffocating and dreary growing up in Aravaca had been and accentuated what he termed the “cosy certainty” of it all.

Yet, Alex understood that it was this same “cosy certainty” which explained why so many of his colleagues either moved or returned to the suburbs to raise families, ‘like herds of animals migrating to their breeding grounds’.

He supposed now, as he parked his Alpha Spider in front of their house that this was why the Garcia’s had moved here. He knew they had two grown up children and that Miguel considered central Madrid to be ‘unsuitable for bringing up a healthy family’ being so ‘polluted and stiflingly hot in summer’.

Alex and Elena being childless however, lacked the “migratory instinct” that seemed to accompany the condition. Often Elena would suggest, only half in jest that they ‘must be perverse in some way—deficient in these normal human instincts.’ Alex would then point out that they had ‘plenty of other human instincts and much more time to indulge them!’

‘In other words’ Elena would then challenge, ‘you’re saying we’re selfish.’

To which Alex would respond; ‘That’s a pious attitude—the concept that not having kids is in some way selfish and sinful and that we have a duty to procreate. If you ask me, it’s the instinct to have children which is selfish. The belief that by spreading one’s seed one is doing society a service.’

‘Yes, but it’s also locked into our DNA—to continue the species. Which brings me back to my first point—that you and I, selfish or not, are maybe lacking something…’

‘Or, are just more highly evolved?’ he would quip. ‘Like oppositional thumbs and cognitive thought? Maybe this lack of a need to procreate is the next level—the next rung on the evolutionary ladder?’

‘If so, it will be the final rung on that ladder—an evolutionary dead-end. Not so much an evolvement as a culmination. I wonder what Darwin would have thought about the concept of evolution leading to culmination?’

‘Whatever he’d have thought I don’t think we need worry yet—not if all the priests and mullahs in the world have anything to do with it. There’ll be no baby shortage in our lifetime…’

Alex smiled wryly to himself at the recollection of this perennial conversation as he opened the black wrought iron gate to the Garcia’s front garden.

15

The straight pathway from the road to the front door was lined with alternate boxed oleanders and laurel glistening under the heavy autumnal dew. The terracotta tiled path bisected an immaculately maintained formal Spanish Mudéjar style garden of topiary, cypresses and citrus. Standard rose grew from circles of soil edged in Roman brick, set within a sandy gravel surface. It was a modest homage to the grand gardens of the Alcázar in Seville and the Generalife in Granada and betrayed the Andalucian taste of its owners.

Alex found the garden seductive and he stopped so that he might fully appreciate it. Even allowing for the overcast September light this was never intended to be a riot of colour. The garden was primarily tonal in concept; all subtle shades of greens and blues with the roses; only pink or white, providing dynamic points of contrast. It was immaculate, reflective in mood, almost melancholic and it reminded Alex of Loli Garcia.

Then, right on cue he heard someone say, ‘So you like my garden Alex.’ She must have seen him drive up from inside the house.

He turned towards her and there, standing at the front door was Loli looking even smaller, paler and thinner than he remembered her.

‘I love it Loli. My compliments to the gardener.’

‘Gratefully received’ and she made a little bow. ‘The back is even nicer. There are fountains and pools and shady places to sit. It’s my sanctum.’

He was alarmed at her decline since they had met at the hospital eight days before. Miguel was fifty-eight when he died and he guessed that Loli was around the same age but as he approached her he noticed that her naturally white skin had become transparent and dry. It had a parchment-like quality of someone twenty or thirty years her senior and her eyes had the same moist filminess as Miguel’s on his death bed. All this and her painfully thin limbs and tied back hair gave the impression of someone shrinking into themselves.

Given her physical deterioration Loli’s outward calm was disconcerting to Alex. He almost needed her to demonstrate her grief overtly, just to break the spell. There was something unnatural about Loli and he was frightened for her.

As they kissed on each cheek and entered the house he thought she smelt odd; a vaguely sweet smell that reminded him of something from his past, like the odour of vellum in old books or ancient parchments.  It was the peculiar odour of someone who was malnourished; someone living on a diet of caffeine.

The interior of the house was typical, simple Castellano but of the finest materials with perfectly plastered white walls, dark oak doors, heavy brown wooden furniture and a floor of handmade terracotta tiles.

Loli led Alex into the main living room and invited him sit down on an austere high backed couch. She remained standing.

‘Can I offer you a coffee Alex?’ she asked.

‘Yes please Loli, I’d love one—black, no sugar.’

While she went and made the coffee Alex stood up again and explored the room. The walls were festooned with large dark clumsily painted oils, mostly copies of equally clumsily painted seventeenth and eighteenth century original Spanish minor “masters”, all contained within broad gilded frames with velvet slips.

The subject matter of the images comprised all the usual suspects for this type of Spanish art: A kitsch representation of an enraptured red-headed Madonna holding a smug looking naked child suffering from what appeared to be a severe case of hydrocephalus; several turgid attempts at Arcadian landscapes, with all the depth and life of a series of worn and dirty billiard cloths; a pair of grotesque portraits, apparently painted by someone influenced by Goya while high on an eighteenth century version of speed and finally; above the hearth, an overly large and unintentionally fauvist still life dominated by a gargantuan lobster painted in lurid ultramarine seemingly locked in mortal combat with a floating string of indigo coloured onions. ‘Gosh!’ Alex thought to himself. ‘If Kenneth Clark could see these he’d say—here you are! You see what I mean! Hopeless! Bloody Hopeless!’  Yet, in a strange way they perfectly suited this particular environment and the overall effect was somehow pleasing and satisfying.

He strolled over to a full sized grand piano in the far corner of the room sitting under a tall window with a full view of the street. Although Alex could not play an instrument he was passionately interested in all things musical. He noted that the piano was a Bluthner; the same make as his late mother’s old baby grand. On the lid of the piano there stood dozens of framed photographs. Among all the usual pictures of weddings and communions were many with images of men who looked similar to Miguel; probably his father and brothers and others of Carlos from when he was younger. In the photos they all shared that same Picasso like face and head and it occurred to Alex that like Picasso, the Garcia clan came from Malaga. ‘Must be a Malagueño gene’ he thought.

He was impressed to see the music for Schubert’s “Wanderer Fantasy”, a piece well beyond his mother’s ability open above the keyboard. He supposed Loli had been sat here playing the Wanderer as he drove up.

He was about to press down on the piano keys when Loli returned with the coffee.

‘It’s no Steinway I’m afraid’ she said placing a tray onto a low glass table with ornate wrought iron legs, ‘but it has a pleasant tone—perfectly adequate for me and this room.’

‘You play Schubert Loli?’ Alex said sitting down again on the couch.

‘I play just about everything Alex. In a former life I had ambitions of being a concert pianist but that was a long time ago. Miguel never stood in my way, you understand. In fact, he was a highly progressive man for these parts. It wasn’t his fault. It was just that we had children and that put an end to my professional aspirations. But I’ve never stopped playing and I taught both our boys to play too. Jorge, our eldest, is really quite good. He performs contemporary jazz with his band at college.’

‘But why the Wanderer Loli?’ Alex asked a little too obviously more interested in her than in her offspring. ‘I love it, but I always find it a touch bleak—dark even.’

‘Well, at least it’s not Death and the Maiden’ she said smiling slightly giving him another fleeting impression of her past beauty. ‘At this moment’ she went on, ‘The Wanderer, to quote a phrase I think I once read in some American novel, touches my condition. I find it more helpful than I would say… a jolly piece of Mozart. Sometimes it’s best to confront one’s sorrow head on—to grab it by the horns, so to speak.’

They sat in silence for a few seconds. Alex felt useless in these situations and he had no idea what to say to Loli about Miguel that would not sound like a platitude. In the end, he just admitted honestly, ‘I’m at a complete loss at what to say to you Loli—about Miguel I mean.’

‘I don’t want or expect you to say anything Alex. I’ve had a house full of relatives and friends saying things to me about Miguel all week. I’ve been saturated in sympathy to the point where I can’t take another drop.’

‘You know Loli, Miguel and I had a good and amicable working relationship but we weren’t friends as such?’

‘Of course I know that. So what?’

‘It’s just that all this… me sitting here now with you…and before at the hospital. It all seems a bit odd. What I mean is… I feel false.’

‘Well, I can’t do much about that I’m afraid, but really all that matters now is that you need an important piece of information. Miguel had that piece of information. Miguel wanted you to have that piece of information. And now you’re sitting here patiently and politely waiting for me to carry out Miguel’s wish… his dying wish, no less…which was that I give you that piece of information.’

‘It’s no hardship sitting here with you Loli’ Alex said a little defensively but sincerely.  The more he got to know this small, intense, fading woman, the more he enjoyed her company.

‘That’s not what I meant. I wasn’t being facetious. I was simply defining the situation as it is. Our sensibilities and social etiquette are of no consequence compared to the bigger picture.’

She picked up her coffee and sat down on a high carver chair opposite him. ‘Look Alex, you’re worried about what I think of you feigning concern for Miguel. Well, never mind you—if you’ll pardon me—what about my Miguel?’ She took a long sip of the thick tarry coffee.

‘What do you mean Loli? What did Miguel do?’ Alex asked.

What did Miguel do?’ she repeated rhetorically. ‘I’ll tell you what Miguel did—or what he did not do to be more precise. He did not pass from this world thinking of me or thinking of us and our nearly forty years of life together. No. My Miguel, as ever solely concerned with the bigger picture died thinking about the same thing that brought you to his bedside that morning. You could even say that you were the only person Miguel actually required at his deathbed. Me and the entire family might as well not have been there so far as Miguel was concerned.’

‘I think you’re exaggerating Loli’ Alex said, genuinely dubious and amazed by her frankness.

Loli stood up and went over to large mahogany sideboard with a blue and white tiled top, opened a draw and pulled out a large thick white envelope. She then returned to her chair and placed the envelope down by the coffee pot. ‘In other words Alex’ she continued, ignoring him, ‘your motivation and your sincerity or lack thereof is of no consequence. In the event you did the right thing by default. All that really mattered to Miguel as he took his final breath was that you should receive this.’

16

She then leant forward and pushed the envelope across the table towards Alex.

‘Knowing that you would read this meant Miguel could die with a modicum of peace’ she added.

‘Why didn’t he just give it me? Before his heart attack I mean?’

‘At first he was simply scared. He only summoned up the courage to actually write this stuff for you about the Transito excavation when Franco relapsed in July. He then intended to give it to you after Franco was dead but when the old bastard recovered and took over again from the young prince it had a terrible effect on him. Miguel was already a shadow of his former self well before Franco’s recovery but once our blessed Caudillo did his Lazarus act it pushed Miguel over the edge. Then last week, the night before his collapse, he nearly phoned you at least half a dozen times. He got himself into a terrible state and eventually decided against it because he didn’t trust the phone. Since all that business with you last April his boss, the chief secretary, made him the scapegoat for the whole mess to protect himself from the wrath of Franco. He was convinced that his mail was being intercepted and that all his phone conversations were being listened to. He thought that they were desperate to get something on him. Miguel said he was at least fortunate that it wasn’t the early days of the regime. They weren’t inconvenienced by things like impropriety back in the ’40s and ’50s. They could have just made him disappear—no questions asked. Nevertheless, the constant worry and the coldness of most of his senior colleagues at the department had a devastating effect on him. You were familiar enough with Miguel to know what a fun loving man he was and so easy going. He just wasn’t cut out for dealing with the hostility and suspicion from people he’d only ever regarded as friends and colleagues. And in the end they destroyed him, just as surely as if they’d stood him up against a wall and shot him. Fortunately though, they failed to destroy what he knew because he wrote it all down, for you Alex.’

‘But what on earth has this business got to do with Franco?’ asked Alex. ‘And since when did Franco take such a keen interest in medieval Judaica? I always thought the guy despised everything to do with the Jews…’

‘He does despise the Jews—albeit more discretely these days since his drive towards modernisation. And you’re correct, that he has absolutely no interest at all in things medieval Jewish. But as you will learn when you read Miguel’s letter, what they discovered in 1964 at the Transito was far from medieval. It was much older and something moreover in which Franco took a most keen interest indeed.’

‘I see’ said Alex.

‘Anyway’ she continued, ‘our beloved leader’s recovery presented Miguel with a big problem. It wasn’t so much fear for himself anymore. He’d got beyond that. It was more a fear for me and Carlos with our knowledge of the Transito discovery and Franco’s little secret. He always felt that when Franco dies things will relax here. He had great faith in the young prince and thought it would be safe, at least after a while to let you in on the secret…safe for you that is Alex. But lying on that hospital bed dying, he changed his mind. He couldn’t face death knowing that he had deceived you and not put things right. So here we are and that’s why your motives are immaterial.’

‘Gracious!’ Alex exclaimed quietly, feeling a little overwhelmed. ‘You know Loli, since that phone call back in April with Miguel I’ve felt almost as I’ve entered a kind of dream state from which I can’t wake up.’

‘Miguel’s letter will wake you up I promise.’

Alex started to open the envelope.

‘No Alex!’ Loli said firmly. ‘Not here, not now. Take it home. It’s yours to keep. I want no more part of it.’

‘Of course, I understand’ he said placing the package on his lap.

‘I hope you never have to understand Alex. My Miguel is dead because of this business. My sweet gentle man has been taken from me and I can’t bear it.  I actually, emotionally and physically can’t bear it.’ This was her first verbal expression of her grief.

They sat in silence while she dabbed her eyes with the woollen sleeve concealing her bony forearm. Then she leant forward and looked intently at Alex.

‘Listen to me carefully Alex. What you are about to read will thrill you as an archaeologist and as a scholar and it will appal you as a Spaniard and a human being. Because of that your natural instinct will be to enquire and to seek and to act. But trust Miguel. Trust me. And wait. Whatever you do wait until the wicked old bastard is dead. Then wait some more. Wait until you are as certain as you can be that you have nothing to fear from people in high places. Wait however long it takes. Wait.’

‘But what if the prince turns out to be another tyrant or a puppet of the generals?’

‘The prince is a good man—pragmatic for sure—but fundamentally decent. He will bring us freedom, I know it. It might take him some time but he will succeed. And in any case Alex you have no choice. When you read Miguel’s letter you’ll see that even if you wanted to there’s nothing to be done until Franco is dead and buried.’

Loli took a deep sigh and stood up to signal that she wished Alex’s visit come to an end.

As they reached the front door she turned to him and gently held his arm. ‘After you’ve read Miguel’s letter go and see his brother Carlos tonight.’

‘He spoke to me at the hospital. He wanted to tell me about the Sons of Kahoth, or something?’

Ko-hath, not Ka-hoth. But don’t worry, he’ll tell you all about it. Meet him tonight if you can, after you’ve read the stuff in there’ she said tapping the envelope with her finger. ‘He’s expecting you at La Gamba at nine. He’ll have a quiet table at the back.’

Loli opened the door and as Alex passed her he stopped on the step and looked at her.

‘Can I ask you one more thing Loli?’

‘Of course Alex.’

‘Why didn’t you just tell me what Miguel’s has written here?’

‘I told you, I’m sick of the whole subject.’

‘But all the same…you’ve told me so much about the background to it. I’d have thought it would have been liberating for you in a way just to get it all out.’

She smiled and again he could perceive the attractive woman she must have once been. ‘Perhaps you’re right but I wanted Miguel to tell you himself in his own words. After everything that’s happened to him he deserves that, even in death…no…especially in death.’

Alex got back into his car and opened the window. The sun had emerged during his time with Loli and it was roasting inside the small cabin of the Spider.

As he was about to turn the key in the ignition he caught a familiar sound on the gentle September breeze coming from the Garcia’s house. It was the sublimely mournful opening bars of the Wanderer adagio.

Alex suddenly felt overwhelmed with melancholy and sadness. ‘She plays like an angel’ he thought to himself as he headed back to the city, ‘like an angel’.

A DREAM IN CATALONIA

THE AMAZING GENESIS OF MY”ARK IN TOLEDO” STORY

PART II

Carmel College Synagogue

At this stage, I should state that I was never your average atheist, either in texture or flavour.

If I tell you that I’ve often found the likes of Jonathan Miller and Richard Dawkins to be a little too agnostic and lacking in conviction for my liking you get an idea of my feelings about all things ‘divine’, ‘spiritual’ and / or supernatural. In fact, my anti-theism—for that’s what it truly amounts to—came upon me in a sort of revelation and in a synagogue of all places, back in 1975, when I was fifteen years old.

You see, it’s not that I had always been of this mind set.

After eight days of life I’d had the obligatory encounter—for Jewish males—with the small but extremely sharp knife  followed by the typical  albeit fairly gentle in my case, conditioning of the traditional North London Jewish upbringing.

There was the Jewish education, both at school and at home from my observant grandfather—my ‘Zaida’; the weekly Saturday visits to synagogue (the orthodox type with the ladies sitting upstairs); the Friday night dinners; the candles and; the very many holy-days and holidays.

In fact, for the first ten years or so of my life, seduced as I was by the numerous attractions for a child of my religion, both holiday-wise and culinary-wise, I veered somewhat towards being a rather pious little boy. It probably also had a lot to do with the fact that my “most favourite person in the whole world”  was indisputably my gentle, kind and incredibly dignified Zaida and that my greatest fear in those days, was doing anything to upset or disappoint him.

Thus it was, during those long tedious hours on Saturday mornings, sitting next to him in synagogue, I never gave him an inkling of how abjectly bored I was for fear of hurting his feelings.

My mildly burgeoning piety notwithstanding, in retrospect I guess, this was my first taste of what ‘duty’ meant. I suppose now, that this innate sense of duty to my grandfather had a lot to do with the fact my father had abandoned us (my mother, my one—older—brother and I) when I was six months old and that it was to my Zaida that I both looked and found that male authority I naturally craved.

However, in 1970 when I was ten years old my mother took my brother and me to live in Israel. And, although this adventure turned out to be abortive with us returning to London barely six months later, the experience delineated the end of the first and the beginning of the second chapter of my life. Paradoxically, this dalliance with life in the ‘Holy Land’ was the catalyst which began my drift away from ‘belief’.

For starters, my mum was irreligious herself and while she had been happy to ‘keep a kosher home’, with all that that entailed, during the years of our extended family existence, she lapsed almost the moment we arrived at our new home in Israel.

Suddenly, there was no more synagogue, no more Friday night dinners, no more observance of any kind. Even on Yom Kippur, we spent the day on the beach with a large picnic.

Mum felt free from the ‘clutter of observance’ for the first time in many years and her sense of freedom must have been infectious, because it transmitted itself to her two sons.

Hitherto, neither of us had ever thought to question the structure of our lives as Jewish boys. After all, it was all we knew and seemed as natural as breathing or eating.

And all of a sudden, spending Saturday mornings body-surfing on a Mediterranean beach instead of being in a stuffy synagogue surrounded by old men (they all seemed old to me at that time) chanting prayers, was very powerful medicine. And like our mum, we instinctively felt as if we had been liberated from what had been before.

But then, still only in my eleventh year, as suddenly as I had left, I found myself back in North London. And once again on Saturday mornings, I was sitting by the side of my still-adored Zaida―only now, far more dutifully than I ever could have imagined just six months previously.

But the seeds of my atheism were planted and from then on the germination was steady and relentless and it was only around five years later that I found myself on my own in another synagogue—the one belonging to my school where I was then boarding in deepest Oxfordshire.

Unfortunately, I can’t recall exactly the reason why I had decided to go and sit alone in the synagogue, except that it was one of those exquisite and magisterial settings with which my old school was bounteously blessed, both geographically and architecturally (see photo above). It must have seemed a natural place to go for a troubled soul.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the building itself was one of the most remarkable and beautiful modern constructions in England.

It was designed by an inspired local architect called Thomas Hancock and you feel that when he was given the brief for the project he was also given more or less free reign, for what I presume was his one and only Jewish house of worship.

Unkindly nicknamed ‘the ski slope’ by most of the boys, it was a soaring structure of primarily glass and honey coloured timber with a grey metallic roof. At its western end it was only about twelve feet high, with the ceiling arcing upwards until it reached somewhere near sixty feet at the eastern end—hence the ‘ski slope’ analogy.

The roof was a marvel, supported by half a dozen exposed, curved, mighty wooden beams, which at that time were the longest of their kind anywhere in Europe.

Outside and within the eastern wall was formed of bare sand coloured breeze blocks. Set in its centre, an ark (the cupboard that housed the scrolls of the Law—the Torah) marked out by a pair of enormous cedar wood doors constructed of overlapping panels and flanked at its corners, from floor to ceiling by a pair of narrow jazzy, Chagall inspired stained glass windows.

The north and south walls of the synagogue were entirely of glass set in delicate wooden frames, which, especially on the south side, allowed for a broad view of the Mongewell Brook that ran through the school grounds until it spilt, via a willow fringed lake, into the River Thames.

The interior space was so conceived by Hancock, that the worshipper experienced a strong sense of exposure to, and oneness with, the landscape that the synagogue inhabited.

The afternoon in question (it was an afternoon, in case I forgot to mention) was a glorious early summer’s day.

Tall oaks, beech and cascading willows rubbed shoulders with the glazed sides of the synagogue, resplendent in their crisp, young foliage. The brook sparkled like a thousand sapphires through the glass. Assorted waterfowl frolicked, floated and bobbed about on its surface silhouetted against the silvery sheen.

I’d taken a seat on one of the long padded benches, about half way towards the ark, when almost immediately I experienced a most curious sensation.

I remember that I was looking out the south window to my left, at the above mentioned sensual, watery, pastoral idyll beyond when, in a matter of seconds it was as if a great and terrible burden had been lifted from my shoulders.

This sensation of release caused my neck to reflex so that I found myself looking straight up at the highest part of the ceiling where the great timber roof-beams slotted neatly into their steel cradles in the lofty cool shadows.

And at that moment I was overcome with a feeling of the purest joy. I recall that I couldn’t stop smiling. I guess that I was feeling something similar to when you are told you have been cured of a terrible illness.

But, in my case, immersed within a symbiosis of man-made and natural beauty in perfect harmony, I’d come to understand with total certainty, that there was no God.

Carmel College Synagogue - stained glass windows

So that was how atheism came upon me and why I knew that the voice that spoke to me that night in Bossòst was the creation of my own overactive mind.

Nevertheless, despite my non-belief, I had a profound interest in the ancient history of my people. So much so, that had it not been for the fact that my aptitude for drawing and painting led me towards a less academically arduous career in the arts I would have definitely ‘done something’ along the lines of archaeology.

But despite this, by the time of my dream-like event in northern Spain I was steeped in the kind of vast general knowledge of a subject that is the special preserve of the amateur enthusiast.

So, I of course knew that according to various biblical texts the ‘Sons of Kohath’ were a high caste clan of the priestly tribe of Levi, supposedly designated by Moses to take care of—amongst other things—the Holy Ark.

Being a Levite myself I had always found this a thrilling concept.

Back in the ancient day though, being a Levite wasn’t merely a paternally handed down title like it is now with a few synagogue related duties and privileges. Back in the ancient day being a Levite really meant something and it didn’t get any more meaningful than for those of the House of Kohath.

So it was hardly surprising to me, just mere moments after the initial shock of the dream had worn off, that my vanity should have decided that I was of such an esteemed caste.

By the same token, I was equally steeped in the subject of the Ark itself; not you will gather because I believed it to be a ‘transmitter to God’, as the evil Belloq described it so eloquently in Raiders of the Lost Ark but because I agreed with Indiana Jones’ original summation at the beginning of the movie; that if the Ark had really existed and was still around somewhere today, it would be of inestimable archaeological and cultural/historic interest and value.

However, when it came to the history of the Jews of Spain and their synagogues I was far less clued-in. I had no knowledge at all about any architectural heritage they may have left behind, in Toledo―or anywhere else upon the Iberian Peninsula.

I had some sketchy ideas about the great cultural flowering of Iberian Jewry during the middle ages and, I also knew that the whole thing came to a terrible end under the Inquisition of Torquemada during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella. But, the shameful truth was, most of what I knew about the ‘Spanish Inquisition’ came from Monty Python rather than from the pages of text books.

That was why, when Dido asked me for the second time that night in very underwhelmed tones, if the word of God had meant anything to me, I replied, somewhat defensively; ‘Well, some of it means something to me.’

Carmel College Synagogue - eastern wall with ark

‘Some of it’? There’s hardly anything of it!’ she responded mystified.

‘There’s enough to mean something.’

‘You also said it was dreadful. What’s the dreadful part?’

‘Having God speak to you is pretty dreadful I would say…in the dark… in a strange place. When you’re asleep you don’t realise it’s only your own subconscious. And then there’s the Ark, the Ark of the Covenant…’

‘Okay. All very thrilling you say, but so what? Are you telling me that your subconscious mind might truly be onto something? That somehow, somewhere, you picked up the answers to the greatest archaeological mystery in the world without realising it?’

‘I’m not saying anything. I haven’t said anything.’

‘But you’re thinking it, aren’t you? You’re toying with the idea.’

‘Well of course I’m thinking about it. I’ve never encountered anything like this in my life before. It was the most intense thing I’ve ever experienced.’

‘Okay then. What do you intend to do about it? Are you going to follow it up?’

‘It’s a question of joining up the dots.’

‘Dots! My dear sweet Adam, there are no dots…’

‘Yes, there are dots. Two bloody-great-big-dots―the Ark and a synagogue in Toledo!’

‘Okay! Two dots! But then how hard can it be to join two measly dots?’

‘Very hard, when the two dots in question are separated by more than two and a half millennia by over two thousand miles. Very, very hard!’

 *

And as things turned out I wasn’t wrong about that strange night in Bossòst.

It took me more than twenty years to join the two dots and come up with a plausible story of the Ark of the Covenant and a synagogue in Toledo.

Two decades of marriage to Dido and nearly as long living in Spain provided me with the confidence and the intellectual mechanics for completing this modern tale:

A tale set in a land of sublime contradictions and insane history;

A tale concerning a venerable building that represents and reflects all of that in a sublime structural form and;

A tale about a legendary artefact with an uncomfortable, not to mention highly inconvenient message.

My novel, The Sons of Kohath is is that story…

WHAT l KNOW AND MY NEW NOVEL…

“I loved it! This is a great story with a wonderful concept and excellent background.” Readers’ Favorite 

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As they continued slowly down the centre of the aisle Omri resumed his photography taking pictures of each of the six apses, of the ceiling, of the floor and the seating and then the stairs leading up to the transept and the choir.They passed behind the raised altar and stared up at the cupola before arriving at the two marble slabs denoting the tombs of Franco and de Rivera, about ten yards apart.‘So where exactly is our object?’ asked Omri in a lowered voice.‘You’re standing on it now’ Alex said looking at the slab beneath Omri’s feet. ‘You’re right on top of it.’

 

The Ark Mosaic Continue reading “WHAT l KNOW AND MY NEW NOVEL…”