Lo! The Magical Kingdom

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In 2014, I was browsing through Cereal magazine when I stumbled upon this article about a “Town of Books”. The feature was brief but evocative, & in characteristic Cereal Magazine aesthetic, generously layered with moody, rain-washed images – a spindly chair at the back of a bookstore in dusky light, clothbound volumes stacked against each other, the humble yet majestic Welsh plains. I devoured the pictures as I did the words, & remember being drawn to this particular line: The books of Hay-on-Wye outnumber its human inhabitants by an estimated 6800 to one. 

It was a figure that did not make sense, perhaps because all my life I had felt that there was no real limit of how much one could read if he or she was willing. But there it was, the impossible number as stark as day – 6800. If a resident of Hay-on-Wye were to read a book every week, it would take 130.77 years to finish the volumes allotted to him or her, book swaps aside. It was unreachable, astounding, daunting.

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Image by Finn Beales, for Cereal Magazine

According to the feature, Hay-on-Wye (commonly abbreviated to just “Hay”) lies just on the border between Wales & England, far away from the capital cities of each country. Up till the 1960s, Hay was nothing more than a floundering market town until Richard Booth – a wiry, 20-something graduate who had gone off to study at Oxford University – returned home & became frustrated at how all his friends were leaving for cities like Cardiff & London for greater prospects. He decided to save the dwindling economy of his rural home the only way he knew how – through books. In 1962, he shipped hundreds of them in containers from the soon-to-be derelict libraries of America & scoured the counties for the forgotten collections of English aristocrats & opened a secondhand bookstore in Hay’s abandoned fire station.

It worked. Tourists started coming, followed by quizzical literati in the years after (it was after all the famed playwright Arthur Miller, who upon being asked to attend the town’s annual literary festival, asked: Hay-on-Wye? What is that, some kind of sandwich?). The sleepy town was finally & thankfully drawn out of slumber, saved from the fate of going out like a whisper like so many others. Since then, many have followed Booth’s example in setting up their own book enclaves, peppered all around town. Fifty-odd years later, Hay is home to two dozen bookstores & something like two million books. It is also hosts the annual Hay festival. Every year in May to June, writers, poets, artists, philosophers & bibliophiles, the likes of which include Alain De Botton & Joseph Heller, descend to the little town for this very reason.

What a story, what a place. I wanted to be there. For 22 years, I had sat on the floor of my tiny “library” & inhabited pages of novels & their fantastic tales. Books had been my world. How would it be like then, to live in a world of books?

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Richard Booth’s Bookshop – Image by Finn Beales, for Cereal Magazine

“Books are the cumulative livelihood, directly or indirectly, of hundreds living in this town, and the draw for the many hundreds of thousands more who come to visit. They contain every imaginable world within their covers, our sum knowledge, every hope and every fear, in scores of languages by countless hands.”

– Richard Aslan, for Cereal Magazine. 

For a long time, the natural rhythms of life intervened. Final year thesis, relationships, fixations with other cities, first job, tragedy. As each year passed, my life became a little messier & confusing & I read a little less until I read nothing at all. The mystical town of Hay faded into the background like a forgotten poet. But then like a miracle, three years later, I found myself in Swansea, Wales under the most unlikely of circumstances & remembered the book town that existed in between the folds of the Welsh countryside. Hay-on-Wye. A whimsical, three-note melody that beckoned me to thee. & so I booked my bus tickets, packed a night bag, & went.

Here’s the story of my 36 hours in the magical kingdom.


From where I am in Swansea, it takes 25 pounds, four hours & three buses to get to Hay, all to visit a town that you can walk across in ten minutes. The morning I leave, the temperature drops to a frigid four degrees & I miss the first bus out & have to wait forty minutes for the next one to arrive. Waiting at the interchange, it’s so cold that I can hardly feel my face. I finally clamber onto the regional bus at 7am. It is just me & an old couple sitting two seats ahead. The radiator is on full blast. I fall asleep almost immediately, unable to witness Swansea City fading behind me.

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Brecon Beacons National Park – Image by Dean Hearne

I wake up a half hour later & all I see is green. This is not the green that I am used to – that gaudy shade caught in jarring, tropical sunlight – but green touched by hues of brown & unbridled rock, an expansive landscape that forms the backdrop of books by Dylan Thomas & Bruce Chatwin. I realise that we are in the heart of Brecon Beacons National Park. There seems to be no horizon to this rolling greenery & a strange feeling rises in the pit of my stomach, swelling like a bubble, a feeling that I’ve only felt a few times before when I found myself in the middle of infinities… what was it? Peace? Bliss? Awe?

I wish I could ask someone about this. The old man turns around & gestures to the top window above his head. He’s asking me if it’s alright to open it. I nod, & he cracks the glass panel wide open & the bus is filled with fresh, vale air. I listen to James Vincent McMorrow & Sam Amidon & Lucy Rose. For more than an hour, we watch the hills twist slowly into roads, the old couple & I; we pass by clusters of thatched cottages, clusters of sheep, all the things in clusters against the sheet of green.

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Brecon Beacons National Park – Image by Dean Hearne

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Fern Hill

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.

(…)

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

(Dylan Thomas, 1914 – 1953)

I get off at Brecon & catch bus 39 as per instructions from Chrissy, my Airbnb host. From the looks of her online profile, she is fifty or sixty-something, has a doughy, not unpleasant face & wears purple glasses. She says that she will meet me outside Hay Castle at exactly noon. I’m nervous because my phone has run out of battery & I have stupidly not written her phone number or address down.

We pass by a few stone mansions, a few road signs, a few people. Suddenly, Hay-on-Wye bursts into view. I can’t believe it, I’ve arrived. It’s down season here – the literary festival isn’t for a few more months – so the streets are mostly clear with the odd couple or lone traveller milling about at a pleasant pace. The bus stops right outside Hay Castle & seconds after I step down, I meet Chrissy. She is exactly like how I imagined – chatty, kind, warm. Immediately she launches into questions about where I came from, what I was doing in here in Hay, if I’ve had any lunch, etc. Her little apartment sits on the edge of town & when we reach, we trudge up two flights of steps & step into a warm little abode.

Bedroom view

She shows me my room – spacious, comfy, big windows with a view of Hay Castle – & tells me where the amenities are. The tour takes two minutes because besides my bedroom, the only things to see are the bathroom (which we both share), a tiny sitting room & an even tinier kitchen. We don’t talk very much because she knows that I have come all this way & am itching to explore the town & its many bookstores. Chrissy leaves me with some food recommendations & retreats into her own room. I take only what I need, including two empty book bags & step out.

I don’t really know where to go so I stop everywhere. I go into The Fudge Shop & get a piece of chocolate fudge to nibble at as I let the streets take me where they may. To get to Castle Road, which is the main vein where most of the bookshops are clustered on, I make a turn into “Back Fold”, an unsuspecting lane, in itself a self-contained world of record shops & knick-knack boutiques & hidden tea salons. Back Fold narrows steadily until one has to squeeze oneself through the opening at the end. As I slide through the two building walls, I think to myself, this is what Alice in Wonderland must have felt like, falling through the rabbit hole.

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A bookshelf built into one of the nestled houses on Back Fold.

Castle Street. The store signs are studded with old-fashioned names – apothecary, antiques, antiquarian – spelt out in fading gold letter & winding curlicues. I duck into Hay-on-Wye Booksellers first & lose myself in the first of many shelves of books. I marvel at the first editions locked behind glass boxes in the antiquarian section & talk briefly to the woman behind the counter, who has a shock of white blond hair & is meticulously cataloguing new arrivals, only stopping to make a sale or answer queries.

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Image by Finn Beales, for Cereal Magazine

The next stop is Hay Castle, the crumbling monument that is the heart of Hay-on-Wye. I enter the castle via a small staircase & am surprised to find a dozen shelves groaning under the weight of hundreds of books, abandoned to the raw elements on this cold day.

The Honesty Bookshop is a peculiar feature of Hay-on-Wye, the only one in town that has no till nor owner. It gets its supply from a variety of sources & works like this – 50p for paperbacks, £1 for hardbacks, take all the time you need & leave the money in the little box at the stairs after you’re done. All proceeds go to the restoration & upkeep of the castle. The castle grounds & the sweet, spring air are yours alone to take in.

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The Honesty Bookshop

Hay Castle isn’t much when you compare it to the other massive stone castles scattered across England, but it is here where Richard Booth, the unofficial founding father of Hay, laid down the cornerstone for the first national book town in the world & all the eccentric booksellers to come. Similar to the eponymous, hapless hero of Miguel de Cervantes’ Spanish classic Don Quixote, Booth is a queer enigma with ridiculous dreams. Quixote dubs himself a knight-errant & Booth proclaims Hay-on-Wye an independent kingdom under his self-declared kingship, taking Hay Castle as his throne room; Quixote recruits an unsuspecting farmer to be his squire & Booth establishes a House of Lords made out of ordinary citizens & names his horse his prime minister. They are both driven by the same, unrealistic desire, or in Cervantes’ words: to set out to revive chivalry, undo wrongs, bring justice to the world… & if not the world, at least this little corner of the once mighty Welsh kingdom.

What fools. What kings.

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A candid shot of Richard Booth, tin crown & sceptre & all.
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The Addyman Annexe & two ladies in blue

Next is Addyman Annexe, complete with a book passage & thousands of penguin paperbacks. Then Rose’s Books, all pretty in pink, a children’s books specialty store stocked with hundreds of out-of-print Tin Tin magazines & Grimm compendiums & beautifully illustrated fables. Then Francis Edwards, whose name sounds familiar until I remember that this is the “same” bookshop that I stumbled into four years ago in London’s west end when I was wet & cold & beginning to feel the first pangs of loneliness in that big, English city. As I stepped into this sister bookshop, I felt a rush of familiarity & recalled that moment from years ago tenderly. Francis Edwards welcomed me then & it was welcoming me now.

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London, 2013


Quinto Bookshop & Francis Edwards

The sheet tacked on the front door reads
Open till late for midnight browsers
so I enter just after eleven

& even when the stinging spring chill blows
through the narrow shop space
nobody lifts their head to look, nobody notices

In a second everything is stock-still.
The first thing I see is an old man in a corner
apart from the rest, tenderly touching the book spines

& I want to cry from the beauty of it
from the realization that this city
is not of love or light or sin

but of little moments & things;
the shelves like billowing arms
& I can’t help it, I let myself fall

You’ve felt like this before, haven’t you?
Battened. held. safe.
(how well you know it

though you’ve never been before)
like maybe you could settle your words down into the dust
like maybe it would keep your secret for you

(London, 2013)

The rest of the afternoon passes in a salubrious haze. Lunch at Oscars – a ham pie & coffee with cream unspooling slowly in its warm centre. Broad Street Book Centre. A sundae at Shepherd’s Ice Cream Parlour, listening to Willie Nelson. I finally arrive at Richard Booth’s Bookstore, the grandest one in town by a mile with two massive storeys, a cafe & a cinema. One can spot it from far away with its red lacquered front & huge glass windows.

Here, I take my time. I order a beer & an English muffin from the cafe & read some poetry; I melt into one of the plush chairs on the second floor, light streaming in from the open ceiling as I navigate worlds of botany, sailing, history, & philosophy. I’m beginning to taste the edges of that feeling of being battened, held, safe, the feeling of finally settling into the skin that I was always meant to be in, like a fitting book jacket. Ah.

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Richard Booth’s Bookshop
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Richard Booth’s Bookshop, second level

That night, after a quick dinner at one of the two open pubs in town, I go back to Richard Booth’s 47-seat cinema, where I’ve purchased a ticket for that night’s showing of “Jackie”. Here, going for a film feels like you’re going to the opera, & rightfully so, in a town where the weekly film is the only form of entertainment besides the local pub or watching TV at home. At the foyer, there is a man in a trim vest & bow tie that serves wine, ice cream & candy from big, glass jars. I get gummy bears & a glass of red, feeling a little sheepish.

At 730pm sharp, me & 46 other people troop into the theatre & nestle into the plush red seats. We watch Natalie Portman on the big screen in all of her lithe beauty, watch her go into a catatonic state of shock & nearly mad with grief as Mr Kennedy is assassinated. We marvel at her polished, mid-Atlantic accent & her expressive brown eyes. We see her go from devastation to gracefulness in seconds & then back again, feeling our own hearts skip a beat at the tumult of raw emotion.

When the credits roll, everybody claps. It is a very good film. I sit in my corner seat for a little while longer while people get up to leave. I realise that I’m tearing up. From what? It has been months since I’ve watched a movie & enjoyed it, but it goes beyond that. Something about community, or home. I can’t be too sure.


The next morning I get up early to spend a few more daylight hours in Booth’s kingdom, but before I venture out, Chrissy prepares breakfast for me – three kinds of cereal, fresh fruit juice, & a really delicious toast that has all kinds of nuts & fruit in it. She brews me a cup of strong, Welsh tea & while I devour my bowl of sweet oats on a foldable table in her tiny living room, we talk about life & people & books. Like me, Chrissy isn’t a native of Hay-on-Wye. She’s not even Welsh. She is a welcome stranger in the land, who left a bad marriage, stumbled upon Hay after traversing the English countryside for days & then decided to stay.

“I came across this little town, & I know this sounds strange but when I arrived at Hay, I just felt it sort of… embrace me, you know? There was such an air of love in this place & somehow I knew that I would fit right in.”

– Chrissy

Strange, I felt it too.

She tells me about her life, the whole unfiltered version of it too, all without asking, & I listen. She talks about how tough it is to make ends meet, but how she knits little hats & scarves to sell at the main square on Market day & rents out the second room & gets by. She says she’s happier then she’s ever been. I don’t know how to respond to the stark openness, but I buy a red knit cap from her & promise I will take some photos of her apartment with my DSLR camera so that she can put them up on the site.

Oh that would be so nice! I’ll need to clean up the place first though…

I decide to leave her to it, & so I thank her for the wonderful breakfast & go out. It’s another morning of the same – Hay Cinema Bookshop, Clocktower Books, Hancock & Monks Music. I do a little shopping in The Old Electric Shop, a space flooded with natural light & odds & ends.

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I love this, the quiet tinkering. Two feet away from me, there is a couple sitting in silence on a couch, just holding hands & bathing in the glow of early morning. A few more people scattered around, reading or writing. I don’t know what it is that draws writers to cafes, to coffee & wine, but I love it – you know you are with the like-minded. Here, the gentle whir of the espresso machine will keep you company; here, the muffled conversations will inspire you. You will inhale, sigh with relief, & perhaps if you are lucky, the word will start flowing.

One rarely has days like these in Singapore. I treasure the effervescent moment.

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It’s eleven – time to go.

After half an hour of walking around, I finally find The Poetry Bookshop, a quiet space in a back alley run by Chris & his wife, where I have a lovely conversation with him & find a rare, first edition poetry collection by Elizabeth Smart aptly titled “A Bonus”. Smart, like most other poets, was unknown & unappreciated in her time & only achieved relative fame years after she died with the prose-poetry volume titled “By Grand Central Station I Set Down & Wept”, a pivotal piece of work for me in my late teens, writing that joined two worlds that I never knew could touch. Her poetry though, is very different, but lovely all the same, & true.

How I used to long
For silence and solitude.
Because in a day or two
Out of the blue
Angels descended then
Connecting me with heaven
In a constant consummation
Independent of men
and things and events
All day and night
A long long amen.

Is This Pain Justified – Elizabeth Smart, from “The Bonus”

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Image by Finn Beales, for Cereal Magazine

In my reverie, I realise that I’m blocking someone from making an actual query. I make way for a man in a beautiful navy blue coat who asks Chris a question about an author I’ve never heard of before & Chris says that while he does not have any copies, Richard Booth’s might have some. He writes down a few things on a scrap of paper & the man leaves happy, hopeful, his leather satchel bouncing behind him as he exits the bookshop & makes his way to the bookseller down the street.

Booksellers. I realise that this is the company that I am in – booksellers – people who have made it their life’s work to hunt down gems of the written word, who have driven for hours or days in search for their favourite author’s work. Next to them, I pale in comparison when it comes to a singular love for books. I can only peer through the looking glass, my fingers grazing the cold illuminated surface, in wonderment of these bookshops & their inhabitants.

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Image by Finn Beales, for Cereal Magazine

Two o’ clock. My time in Hay has come to an end. I pick up my things, say goodbye to Chrissy, & catch the 39 out of Herefordshire. I settle into the seat, thinking about the hours that have passed in a tranquil fury. It was everything hoped for & more. It has been a rough year & I feel like maybe these 36 hours in Hay-on-Wye have done a healing work, that maybe something that I’ve been holding within me has broken like a dam. Lo, the Magical Kingdom.

Hay is a town that is full of dreamers, & not the kind of dreamers that sit around all day doing nothing. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Sylvia Beach, George Whitman & his daughter, Richard Booth… these booksellers are men & women of greatness because they know & believe in the magic of storytelling, of print, of curation. Booth just decided to do something, & a bunch of people then did the same.

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In his memoir, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, the poet Lewis Buzbee says this: I am fatally attracted to all bookstores, & I identify with this gravitational pull well because in this day & age where we see the world through pixels & screens, there is a certain comfort & romance to reading with unadulterated eyes. By reading, you partake not only in your past, but someone else’s, or maybe even a whole civilisation’s. It is a necessity & a privilege.

So go ahead. Open the door, dip your finger into the jar, let your eye linger on the page. It’s all waiting for you.

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Why Paris?

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View of the Institut de France from the Museé du Louvre

I saw Paris first through lenses, like everyone else.

The first lens was that of literature. In my little library at home, I have arranged my books in the following sections: Contemporary Fiction, Classic Works, Food & Cookery, Music & Movies, Poetry & Plays, & finally… “Books about Paris”. There, you will find Wilde’s Down & Out in Paris & London, Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Sartre’s L’âge de raison, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Stein’s Paris, France, Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil & perhaps the most definitive novel in my education on Paris, Adam Gopnik’s From Paris to the Moon (sublime, alluring, swelling with fervour & acute observations on the quotidian… but more on that later). That Paris as a subject should merit an entire shelf by itself may be astonishing, but wait – let me explain this peculiar obsession.

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Shakespeare & Company

I read about Paris first in the children’s classic When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr which chronicled the growth of Anna, a young Jewish girl living in Berlin during the Second World War. The story follows her journey across several countries with the rest of her family – Papa, Mama & her older brother Max – as they leave Germany for Switzerland & then France to escape the Nazis. In the book, Papa is a francophile & loves Paris with all his heart, & after the first few days of being in their new home country, he takes everyone out to explore the city & they somehow end up at the top of the Arc de Triomphe. There is a moment where Anna is rendered speechless at the sight before her – the roads glittering with lights, the dim shapes of domes & spires & the twinkling Eiffel tower in the distance – & she turns to Papa in wonderment, who can only stare off in a daze & say breathlessly: Isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it a beautiful city?

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The Arc de Triomphe

I saw Paris through the eyes of a child, heard the sounds of Anna playing with her friends in the école communale, smelt the whiffs of freshly made coffee from the market boulangerie. The words of the book painted scenes that seemed so distant & strange for a young girl who had grown up in a tropical island her whole life, whose experience with coffee was limited to her father’s daily “kopi-c” – hot & sprung up, held, in a little plastic bag. Like Anna, herself so foreign & yet so immediately enamoured by the French capital, I could feel my mind expanding, dreaming, pushing against the boundaries of that stretched plastic to taste a faraway place where children drank espresso in the mornings & sipped wine diluted with sparkling water at night, where they sampled snails & onion soup for supper on the fourteenth of July & danced with their parents by the left bank till dawn. This was my introduction to the city, as were most other things – through literature.

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Then I saw Paris through my second lens – that of film. As a young teenager, I was (still am) besotted by Audrey Hepburn, & besides wanting to be Holly Golightly walking down Fifth Avenue, Manhattan, in her little black dress with a flaky pastry in hand, I watched her in Charade, How to Steal A Million & Funny Face with Cary Grant, Peter O’Toole & Fred Astaire respectively, hand-in-hand with her leading men & clad in Givenchy, finally in a city that seemed worthy of her beauty, something New York City never quite managed to be. I watched Moulin Rouge & Amelie, saw their characters bring colour to an already flamboyant Montmartre, the 18th arrondissement full of night time light & sin. Paris, I believe, is the city most fondly remembered & distinctly portrayed in old cinema, matched only by its equally romantic sister city Rome (Only Paris is worthy of Rome; only Rome is worthy of Paris, the famous saying goes).

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Hôtel de Ville
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Saint-Chapelle

& then there was the last lens, a collection of the more secondary images of the eternal city – the photographs, the stories from first-hand travellers, the music of Edith Piaf & Pink Martini. There is a picture taken by the famous photographer Robert Doisneau that is seared into my memory forever though I can’t recall where I saw it first. It was something that I unconsciously held to my chest as representative of the atmosphere of Paris until the day I finally went.

In this photograph, one can make out the famous Hôtel de Ville in the background, faint but magnificent, which means that this picture was taken right on Rue de Rivoli from a café during rush hour. Everybody in the picture is well-dressed – pea coats & trilbies & silk scarves – on their way to wherever they are going, & right in the thick of it, there is a pair of lovers kissing tenderly yet intensely, the lady beautiful in her fitting sweater & her head thrown back, & the gentleman (which has come to represent all French men for me, unfair as that may be) with his thick waves of hair askew, his arm forming a perfect nook for the lady to lean into. This struck me immensely, that Paris seemed to be a city where one could be right in the middle of this sprawling metropolis, the premier city of the old world, but still be completely abandoned to passion & romance whenever the situation presented itself. Could I one day have that too: structure & spontaneity?

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“The Kiss” – Robert Doisneau, 1950

You can imagine how these three lenses made my idea of Paris swell to disproportionate sizes. My Paris before I knew Paris was pink & pretty & artistic. I always let sentiment get the better of me (the forlorn poems & endless daydreams speak for themselves) & this is often to my detriment especially when I travel. In From Paris to the Moon, Gopnik encapsulates it perfectly in these sentences:

“There are two kinds of travelers. There is the kind who goes to see what there is to see & sees it, & the kind who has an image in his head & goes out to accomplish it. The first visitor has an easier time, but I think the second visitor sees more. He is constantly comparing what he sees to what he wants, so he sees with his mind, & maybe even with his heart, or tries to.”

I knew before I went to Paris that it would be difficult because I was the said second visitor, rich in expectation, laden with the lenses & the distorted views that they had produced all my life. So when I came to the city for the first time in 2011, I was full of trepidation. It was then when I would be confronted with the truth, see for myself if I would truly love Paris now that I was right there, or if I had only loved the idea of it. I was only eighteen then & my friends & I were backpacking around Europe & had just finished our stint in Rome. As we finally rode into Paris on the ten o’ clock Orlybus, I knew that I couldn’t be wrong about my assumptions because there was a distinct click between the images in my mind & what I saw before my eyes. I felt like I was dreaming for something like five consecutive days. It is a city that inspires words, poems, songs; it flows out of you, like the waters of the Seine.

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Champs-Élyseés on a Sunday afternoon

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Days like these
when things don’t matter
when you don’t matter
when
I only want the smell of rain

of cities & streets
& eyes dreary with sleep
indelible & sublime
swallowed dappled light &
leapt in air, soared

& curled up in love & silk scarves
This is where I belong
in liquid sound
I am going heady with grey
douse me in flowers & sweet tea

(Rue, 2013)

I returned to Paris two years after that, & again in March this year. Paris was the same, no matter how much it had changed. It still elicits the same emotions, perhaps only more intensely each time. In between all these sojourns, I have learnt what it means to truly love a city for all that it is, all the pretty parts but all the ugly, raggedy bits too. Images & nostalgia are all well & good, but you cannot say that you love Paris if you do not know its pain keenly, if you have not seen the gypsies who inhabit the street corners, wearing everything they own, their eyes hungry & searching, or the dark-skinned immigrants selling their wares outside the Louvre with a sense of intimidating urgency, who have come from very far away because they, just like you, believed that Paris was a city of magic, of hope. You must love every dirty cobblestone, every dinghy backstreet, every overcrowded café you dine at, rubbing shoulders with a stranger, your nose itching from the unceasing cigarette smoke. You must not complain at the offhanded Parisien service at the brasserie or at the rising prices of croissants because after all, this is the Paris you fell in love with, & love means to accept something completely.

Time is relentless
it casts long, tremulous shadows
& we, we are always in transit
fleeting & flitting
between light & dark & translucence
always fickle
always whisked away by loftiness
by that crumbling feeling
or the lift away.
We don’t study the minute details
but we take in beauty in spoonfuls, gallons…
What ephemeral creatures we are.
We must tread lightly on this earth.

(2017)

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The Galerie d’Apollon in the Louvre
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Lunch at Benoit – cheese & black pepper puffs, offal salad & champagne
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A café in Montmartre

So there it is, my elaborate answer to the question, Why Paris? – because I love it wholly, the same, through the lenses & without. Nowadays, whenever I read a novel, I can’t help but think of the legion of lost generation writers (Hemingway, Joyce, Stein, Eliot, Fitzgerald) who graced the grounds of Les Deux MagotsCafé de Flore in 1920s Paris, who did not know yet that they were one day going to write books about the eternal city – they simply lived. Nowadays, I never stand in the middle of a museum & not see the marble arcs and gold-glided ceilings of the Louvre at the corner of my eye (I still expect the Winged Victory of Samothrace to appear right before me, her pose dauntless & her well-chiselled shoulders carrying the weight of centuries). I see the Tuileries in every garden, the Seine in every river, Shakespeare & Company in every bookshop.

I cannot help it. Because of these innumerable, tiny pinpricks on my psyche, I sometimes dream a million dreams in a span of a day. Edith Piaf knew what she was talking about when she sang that famous tune, seeing life coloured in a rose tint, full of spirit & song. Quand il me prend dans ses bras / Il me parle tout bas / Je vois la vie en rose… Six years on, like that black & white photograph, so do I, or so I would like to believe. Because of Paris, I now see the world through a different lens – Paris itself.

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Red Doors – A Photo & Poetry Essay

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Wilderness

…O, I got a zoo, I got a menagerie, inside my ribs, under my bony head, under my red-valve heart—and I got something else: it is a man-child heart, a woman-child heart: it is a father and mother and lover: it came from God-Knows-Where: it is going to God-Knows-Where—For I am the keeper of the zoo: I say yes and no: I sing and kill and work: I am a pal of the world: I came from the wilderness.

(Carl Sandburg)

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The Flower

I think I grow tensions
like flowers
in a wood where
nobody goes.

Each wound is perfect,
encloses itself in a tiny
imperceptible blossom,
making pain.

Pain is a flower like that one,
like this one,
like that one,
like this one.

(Robert Creeley)

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yes is a pleasant country

yes is a pleasant country
if’s wintry
(my lovely)
let’s open the year

both is the very weather
(not either)
my treasure
when violets appear

love is a deeper season
than reason;
my sweet one
(and April’s where we’re)

(ee cummings)

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Red Doors

Most days I am in love with the world. The sharp syrupiness of strawberry jam, the bitter kick of my morning espresso. Walking down the little lane that cuts through fields of wild grass, drifting through the mist that rises from it like steam. The red doors I see on the way to town —

one, two, three, four, five, six

I collect them & before the afternoon is over, I have half a dozen or so sitting in my mind’s eye. They are so out of place in the quotidian — so stark is the scream of colour that it lifts me out of daydream. I love it all, I am basking in the pleasure of being present; I am treading lightly on this beautiful earth. On days like these, there is always a quickening of heart, a deep appreciation for the little things, an unspeakable gratitude.

Most days I am love with the world, but then some days, I’m not. They are unsuspecting & they come like a suffocating wave, those sunken mornings & heavy nights. On days like these, I pray for strength, strength to remember all of it: the strawberries, the grass fields, the six little red doors, all of these bright beacons of hope in bleakness… I rub the memory on my chest like soothing balm. I breathe in, say again & again:

I’m still here

I’m still here

I’m still

Here

I

…till I remember the rhythm. Till I remember it well. How could I forget it? It is sweetness; it is hope. It is within. It is there, has always been, will remain until the very end of age.

Selah my soul, selah.


Bits of poetry I’ve been collecting & enjoying lately. Red Doors originally appeared in a recent SELAH article. Our stories are art forms & at best, testimonies, & the good people at SELAH are just doing a brilliant job curating each & every one of them that comes their way. I’m terribly grateful for the opportunity to  contribute to such a wonderful online publication that is doing heaps for the Christian community.

In other news, work has started & it’s like the cogs in my head need a good oiling. How did I wake up at 545am every weekday to go to school in the recent past? & do math & PE & go for band practice & all that? Where did all that energy come from?! It boggles my mind. Anyway, no complaining – just gratefulness, for the new season that is to come.

(mumbles)

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(mumbles)

Beautiful, the drifting,
my tendency is to fall off the face
of the earth & never return
but hey, wait, a hair’s breadth
red, I’m coming round the bend

where thistles grow from thistles
& lilies from lilies, & I’m struggling
to remember what the painted
wallpaper looked like behind you
that afternoon speckled with salt

& I know here on this pier, the twist
is final – I straddle the dark thought
if you want to scream, let it out
the irrefutable rock tightened from
unhurried steps will absorb it well.

mumbles – the name of the place –
as lovely as the words “freckles”, “dappled”
it’s leaning into your ear & yawning
you have already happened.
slight as the next inflection of tongue

you have already happened.
so through the thicket, you missed it
thistle, whistle, missed it
oh, & then you found it
& well, God knows you’re trying.

We Cut Our Teeth on Iron – A Photo & Poetry Essay

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At Sea

It is not through weeping,
but all evening the pale blue eye
on your most photogenic side has kept
its own unfathomable tide. Like the boy
at the dyke I have been there:

held out a huge finger,
lifted atoms of dust with the point
of a tissue and imagined slivers of hair
in the oil on the cornea. We are both
in the dark, but I go on

drawing the eyelid up by its lashes
folding it almost inside-out, then finding
and hiding every mirror in the house
as the iris, besieged with the ink
of blood rolls back

into its own orbit. Nothing
will help it. Through until dawn
you dream the true story of the boy
who hooked out his eye and ate it,
so by six in the morning

I am steadying the ointment
that will bite like an onion, piping
a line of cream while avoiding the pupil
and in no time it is glued shut
like a bad mussel.

Friends call round
and mean well. They wait
and whisper in the air-lock of the lobby
with patches, eyewash, the truth
about mascara.

Even the cats are on to it;
they bring in starlings, and because their feathers
are the colours of oil on water in sunlight
they are a sign of something.
In the long hours

beyond us, irritations heal
into arguments. For the eighteenth time
it comes to this: the length of your leg sliding out
from the covers, the ball of your foot
like a fist on the carpet

while downstairs
I cannot bring myself to hear it.
Words have been spoken; things that were bottled
have burst open and to walk in now
would be to walk in

on the ocean.

(Simon Armitage)

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Blackberrying

The only thing to come now is the sea.
From between two hills a sudden wind funnels at me,
Slapping its phantom laundry in my face.
These hills are too green and sweet to have tasted salt.
I follow the sheep path between them. A last hook brings me
To the hills’ northern face, and the face is orange rock
That looks out on nothing, nothing but a great space
Of white and pewter lights, and a din like silversmiths
Beating and beating at an intractable metal.

(Sylvia Plath)

 

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Atlantis

..Early spring,

too cold yet for green, too early
for the tumble and wrack of last season

to be anything but promise,
but there in the air was white tulip,

marvel, triumph of all flowering, the soul
lifted up, if we could still believe

in the soul, after so much diminishment…

(Mark Doty)

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& now, perhaps too boldly (after all of my favourite poets & their beautiful pieces), one of my own.

The Speechless Villanelle

i taste the salt cloying on my face
lay down continents before it’s too late
i ask myself: what do you want to say?

watch the moons while they go out to play
& quell the part that dwells for far too long
it’s all part of the story anyway

so i’m reaching out for heaven’s gates
& my tendency towards love & song
i ask myself: what do you want to say?

i climb the edge of your craggy face
lay waste to a situation unexplained
it’s all part of the story anyway

the daughters that fall away again
& the sons that cut their teeth on iron
i ask myself: what do you want to say?

perhaps it was all worth the wait
the ocean’s striations are now mine to take
i ask myself: what do you want to say?
it’s all part of the story anyway.

Twelve Square Meters

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Like life, I am unhinged, as large,
In an apartment high above
with streaked windows like doors
This dream becomes
solid as the ground I stand on
Lick my fingers clean from an unconscious song

I have been thinking a lot about my time in Sweden lately. Of course, here & there I think about Stockholm, abbreviated & embroidered on every facade of the city – train stations, street signs, guidebooks – as STHLM, chic & straightforward, not unlike its people. I see the city as surely as I see water in all its forms; the numerous islands & bridges & river inlets that make up the city & create an openness that is rare in European capitals.

‘Water is the nerve of Stockholm. It opens up the sky & lends a glow to this incredible fairytale city of the north, not far from the Arctic Circle. Stockholm is the city, it is always the same, everything changes, people come & go…’

But although STHLM is immediately identifiable to the cosmopolitan traveler, it is my humble town of Linköping that I miss the most. It is the fifth largest city in Sweden but the city name & its pronunciation (lin-sher-pin) is usually unheard of. & I too, did not hear of it till it became part of me.

I remember arriving in my tiny square space & spending that night on a threadbare & musky IKEA mattress, the room startlingly dark & all my possessions contained in two luggage cases, that feeling of lightness of being (but also an acute emptiness) unfurling in my chest. I had arrived at Linköping after applying for an exchange program on a whim with my then-boyfriend, picking the place only because it seemed like a whimsical, faraway town to runaway to if only to escape the sticky Singaporean heat. In that moment though, it did not seem at all appealing. I missed my own room, my home.

After a night of crying, I refused to stay in the stagnant & decrepit state of not belonging & thus unpacked, sparse as the shelves looked under my five or six possessions. At least I tried. & I tried the next day, & the next day, & the next. & as the weeks passed, I began to develop a routine & I slowly felt the previously hostile walls of the room begin to mould around my daily activities, or perhaps I was changing myself to fit the contours of the room itself. Every day after art history or political science class, I would park my pink bike outside my dorm, unlock my door & hang my coat & scarf on the rack next to my bathroom (coat, left; scarf, right). I would shake the snow off my boats & leave them to dry between the radiator & the front door. Then finally, I would stumble into my tiny bedroom & collapse onto the sheets to thaw from the minus five-degree weather.

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I began to decorate, dragging a white table & chairs & boxes of abandoned books from the college residential halls into my room. Piles of research papers & discarded poetry collections began to form little towers on my study table. I grew accustomed. Every morning I would wake up, turn my body to the right & gaze at the blue-grey shafts of light that slid between the blinds & made their way into my room. It was almost winter then & the sun would climb up lazily into the sky at ten in the morning & then melt away again into the horizon at four in the afternoon. I liked that counter flux of dark & light; it suited my introverted tastes.

Rydsvagen 254 A17 58438
Linköping, Sweden

But when did this room become “home”, exactly? I can’t remember which weekend trip I was coming back from, perhaps Oslo or London, but I do know that it was in the dead of the night & we were exhausted from lugging our bags from train to bus, bus to plane, plane to bus again. & I remember this moment so clearly as we approached the Ryd intersection & went separate ways to our own student apartments & I turned to whoever I was traveling with then & said, okay well, see you later, I’m going home. Home.

The four-letter word hung in the dark intersection, crystallised in sleepy breath. & for me, that inherent moment of the sense of home shifting within my mind’s eye was monumental & I felt a rush of yes, the other-home sweetness & warmth, the belonging, like when a person fits her arm into the crook of her lover’s & it sits there snug… like when there’s a catch between bolt & key, like when you’re no longer suspended in air. & almost immediately I felt a little guilty, as if I was cheating on my own room in Singapore, but then I reassured myself with the thought that my old room would understand. There, there. It wouldn’t mind one bit. It would want me to feel at home in another place, at least for a certain period of time.

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I took many pictures of the European cities that year, stunning sights & historical monuments. I took pictures of the celestial lights in the midnight Scandinavian sky, of the deep velvet forests I hiked in, of the people I had met. I took many pictures at an attempt to remember, but now when the names of towns & municipalities & street names are slipping off the edges of my mind, all I have to do is close my eyes & think about my room, my little twelve square meters of home. It is the one thing I can’t forget.

I guess the thing that I’m getting at is this: you only have one birthplace but you can have more than one home. Even though I’m back in Singapore right now, I am always wondering what my next destination will be & whether it is a place where I could one day reside & make my own. & as I recollect memories about my time in Sweden, I also find myself feeling fluid – like water, like the rivers of Stockholm, like that sense of home.

Happenstance;

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My contemporaries like small objects,
dried starfish that have forgotten the sea,
melancholy stopped clocks, postcards 
sent from vanished cities,
& blackened with illegible scripts,
in which they discern words
like “yearning,”, “illness”, or “the end.”
They marvel at dormant volcanoes.
They don’t desire light.
Adam Zagajewski

A typewritten copy of this poem hangs forlornly on one of my bookshelves, held down in place by some candles & foreign coins. It caught my eye yesterday as I cleaned out my tiny library. As I skimmed through the poem, it took on new meaning for me because whilst I had always enjoyed it before, I think I finally understood what Zagajewski meant when he talked about his contemporaries liking small objects & not desiring light. It invokes a kind of sadness, when you let the collecting of small objects replace the joy of finding these small objects in person on a journey, picked up by pure happenstance.

Happenstance (adj.)
: a circumstance especially that is due to chance

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Incidentally, my shelves are filled with “small objects”: trinkets, curios, gifts from friends, souvenirs from faraway. Sketches. Leather bound notebooks from Melbourne. A ceramic turtle from Kyrgyzstan that produces a high-pitched whistle when you blow through its mouth… Ah, you get the picture. A hundred little things. & as I looked at Zagajewski’s poem & all the dusty tchotchkes scattered around me, I was filled with the sudden desire to return back to the things that once brought true joy – travel, photography, writing, sketching, eating – instead of being reduced to The Collector.

You are The Collector
bringing together
the hidden places in people
collarbones, forearms, ears…
you’re storing them up
in the city that is your mind
O, that deep, swirling darkness
Won’t you let me in?
But do I want to go in? I don’t think so; not anymore. It comes down to this: I don’t want to be reduced to a forgotten thing on a shelf. It’s time to open up, let the light in.