“Annual gatherings” are a major event in all sorts of membership organisations; political parties, social groups such as Mensa, and campaigning groups such as Esperanto. They are an opportunity to put faces to familiar names, to renew existing acquaintances, and to put the participants in a cheerful frame of mind for the next year's activities.
The year 2005 offered an embarassment of choice for Esperantists. Since the centenary of Esperanto itself in 1987, the various Esperanto associations have been celebrating their own centenaries. In particular, the 100th anniversary of the first World Esperanto Congress was commemorated by a gathering in the original host town, Boulogne. I had considered going there myself, until I discovered it wasn't going to be a particularly international event. 90% of the participants would be French and most of the rest were Belgian.
Maybe geography dictated this; or maybe the bureaucratic booking arrangements which made it pretty difficult to enrol from outside the Euro-zone.
So I considered the World Congress proper, which was being held in Vilnius (Lithuania). I had more or less made my mind up when a Scottish friend suggested an alternative; the 100th Scottish Esperanto Congress, to be held in Largs in June. This had a lot to recommend it; easier travel, no need to get a passport (devolution hasn't quite gone that far!) and probably a lot less expensive.
In the end I settled for Largs and began my preparations. Having booked in at a camp site, I planned the journey. I could have flown to Prestwick and been there in no time, but I chose the green alternative and paid £109 (!) for a train ticket. To do the whole thing in one day would have meant leaving Ipswich at 7.00 a.m. so I planned to travel overnight.
And so the adventure began, with a 3 mile walk across the fields to the nearest bus, on a warm sunny Thursday afternoon, and an hour on the bus brought me to Ipswich Station.
Confusion reigned in the station; there had been a fatal accident at Brentwood and everything was running late, if at all. Nobody grumbled; after all, we were a lot better off than the poor sod under the train.
But by the time I got to Peterborough I was running 3 hours late. The next train got me to Newcastle some time after midnight. No Glasgow train till 6.30. It wasn't the first time I'd spent the night on a railway station and it probably won't be the last; but it did come as a surprise when they closed the station at 2.10 after the last train from London came in. The good news was that they would be opening it again at 4.00 for the first train back to London. I wonder why they bother closing it for just 110 minutes.
Anyway it was an opportunity to look at Newcastle which I shall probably never have again. It's a fine city, remarkably clean and tidy, with life-size statues of ordinary citizens dotted about, and an imposing monument to ... Earl Grey, of all people; a fairly undistinguished 19th century Prime Minister, but maybe he did good things for Newcastle. And his tea is very nice.
In the morning there was another unique opportunity, to travel up to Glasgow via the Newcastle-Carlisle line, which is said to be quite an experience; but I passed it up for an earlier train going the ordinary way via Edinburgh. And so to Largs, arriving mid-morning.
First impressions; a really traditional seaside town, the kind I remember from my childhood. A children's funfair, ice cream stalls everywhere, a cheering lack of burger outlets, one or two amusement arcades, lots of cafés, and a solid row of hotels along the seafront. If there was a decent photo on their website, you'd be seeing it now.
Finding no-one in the congress venue (it was far too early) I started out for the camp site, up a long slow hill that seemed to go on for ever. Strangely, by the time I left it had apparently shrunk to half the length...
If you like traditional no-nonsense camping with plain but perfectly adequate facilities, moderate charges, and breathtaking scenery, get yourself to Largs and make your way up to South Whittlieburn Farm (less hardy souls can also get B&B there).
I reckon I live in a pretty peaceful, quiet village; but Brisbane Glen, where the camp site is, is really peaceful and quiet. There's hardly any traffic; it's not under a flight path; there's no light pollution or any other kind of pollution; and all you will hear is the sound of sheep, cows, horses, the occasional dog, and the rippling of a nearby burn. At this time of year it's not properly dark till nearly midnight, so as you drowse in your tent you can still hear the animals moving about a bit. You're up in the hills, but there are other much higher hills all around, and as you look across you can see sheep dotted around on them, looking the size of ants, all the way up to the top. It must take them ages to get up and down.
So, with the tent more or less safely pitched, I started back down. I now saw what I naturally hadn't seen on the way up, which was the view down to Largs; framed by gentle hills on both sides, the pretty town all built of stone, beyond that an inlet of the sea, and beyond that again the Isle of Arran, and above it all a cloudless pure blue sky. That's the best I can do to describe it; you'll have to see it for yourselves.
2One view, a very pleasant one, is rarely out of sight wherever you are in Largs. It's the view across the water to Great Cumbrae, a smallish island lying between Largs and Arran. This will feature in Sunday's doings, but at present it's still Friday afternoon.
The Priory House Hotel, venue for the Congress, consists of two imposing buildings linked by a Conservatory, which, like most conservatories, consists mostly of glass, and looks out over the water to Cumbrae.
When I arrived a dozen or so early arrivals were sitting out on the grass, and looking forward to...
... cast your mind back to the fourth paragraph at the start of all this. We are talking about the one hundredth Scottish Esperanto Congress. Now do the arithmetic. Esperanto arrived in Britain a little over 100 years ago with the founding of the first Esperanto club in Britain, in Keighley. So these doughty Scots have been meeting every year through thick and thin and two World Wars without missing a year. Last year's British Esperanto Congress (in Felixstowe) was only the 86th. In view of all this, it's no wonder that the Congress attracted five Presidents – of the Universal Esperanto Association, the Esperanto Association of Scotland, the Esperanto Association of Britain, the International Phonetic Association, and the Simplified Spelling Society. Admittedly three of these were the same person!
I wouldn't care to guess the total attendance as we were rarely all together in the same place but there seem to have been over 50 at dinner; mostly Scottish of course but the English contingent were made very welcome, as were visitors from Northern Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands and probably some other places I have forgotten. Enough overseas guests to prevent much English being heard, as would probably have been the case anyway, though a little Gaelic was heard now and then; and a very high standard of Esperanto, as much in the coffee breaks, and out and about in town, as in the formal sessions.
The main theme of the serious part of the Congress was the “Scottish School” of Esperanto writers. As so often with “schools” the main link between them was just being in the same place at the same time. They didn't share a common world view, or a common style; some were more prolific than others, and some were just more accomplished writers than others. But they did meet and work together; as individuals they each contributed a section to the joint work Kvaropo, a collection of verse published in 1953. Two of them were principal editors of the Angla Antologio, a collection of translated English (!) poetry published in 1957, and all four or them contributed to its contents.
As for “why now?”, well, there is no obvious reason for the timing of these talks, but it was a special event, the 100th congress, and these four authors do represent the peak of Esperanto writing in Scotland. There was one significant date, the 50th anniversary of the publication of Reto Rossetti's El la maniko, still a highly entertaining collection of short stories, but I don't think anyone mentioned this.
But the first talk, on Friday afternoon, concerned Albert Goodheir, Dutch by birth but Scottish by adoption. Goodheir was a significant writer, translator and publisher of Esperanto texts. Unfortunately I cannot report much about Ed Robertson's doubtless excellent address as I was drowsy following my sleepless night on Thursday.
Likewise a slow start to Saturday morning meant that arrived a little late for John Francis, one of two surviving members of the “Kvaropo”; not just surviving but active and flourishing as attested by his modestly-titled “Anecdotes about the Scottish School” which were a fascinating glimpse of how the four writers worked together, often physically together in marathon all-night working sessions.
This led seamlessly into Paul Gubbins' discussion of Reto Rossetti, arguably the most lightweight writer of the four, but a stickler for high standards of writing and translation.
Saturday afternoon brought the first of two rousing contributions from Stephen Thompson, a tribute to the other surviving member of the “Kvaropo”, William Auld. Auld is now enjoying a well-earned retirement from literary efforts, but we heard a recording of him reading one of his poems. William Auld was, and presumably still is, a wonderful performer of poetry; his recordings, regrettably few, are well worth seeking out. Also live, extremely “live”, readings from Auld's works, and a couple of songs that he translated. Some of Auld's original poetry has been set to music; it would have been nice to hear some of that, but time was short.
Sunday afternoon brought what was probably the most enlightening of the five presentations, as its subject, John Sharp Dinwoodie, is by far the least known and least prolific of the “Kvaropo”. It was a delight to hear Marjorie Boulton, still in fine form, bring him to life; and having witnessed her doing some of the research for her talk I can only be amazed at her abiliity to find information and insight where it appeared that none was to be had. Through diligent searching in ancient periodicals she had turned up a surprising number of poems beyond those published in Kvaropo.Dinwoodie was a very private man, who entirely stopped writing in Esperanto when he felt it was diverting too much of his time from his duties as a pastor. He could have seemed a very dull subject, had anyone else been discussing him; so hats off to Marjorie Boulton. Incidentally, I wonder if anyone knew that 2005 sees the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of her own major volume of poetry, Kontralte. If anyone did, they were too polite to say so.
Anyone not familiar with Esperanto and Esperantists will be surprised to hear that the light relief at Esperanto gatherings comes when the talk turns to matters of language and linguistics. Renato Corsetti, president of the Universal Esperanto Association, set the ball rolling on Friday evening when he discussed the use of Esperanto by very young children (2 years old and upwards). Anybody who has observed their own children learning to speak will know this is a fascinating subject, and when the language is Esperanto it is even more extraordinary. I'd heard Corsetti speak about this before but it wasn't exactly the same text; sadly we were running late (not for the last time) so questions and comments from the floor were a mite shorter than they could have been.
Next up, on Saturday afternoon, was Geoffrey Sutton giving an insight into Scandinavian languages past and present. This is a huge subject, but he was able to give us at least an idea of the similarities and occasionally amusing differences between the various languages.
Sunday evening brought the last specifically linguistic item, John Wells on the role and functioning of the Esperanto Academy. It's just as well that his many years as a speaker and lecturer have taught John to be succinct, as time was short yet again. We don't hear enough about the inner workings of the Academy, and John Wells managed to pack a wealth of information into a fairly short span.
Questions of language were never far away on Monday morning, when the closing session of the Congress was taken up mostly with a question and answer session with Renato Corsetti; only right and proper as he was the Guest of Honour, but also of course because he's an entertaining speaker and we wanted to make the most of his presence. Topics ranged over literature, the internal politics of the Esperanto movement, and, as I said, questions of language.
Before moving on I must mention a remarkable début. For a some years now David Lilley has been researching the life and doings of one Douglas Bartlett Gregor, who apart from his Esperanto activities (writer, translator, theorist) was a classicist and an authority on a large number of mostly minor languages, especially local languages of Italy. But he was a versatile man and also a notable Biblical scholar. Naturally David had to learn some Esperanto in order to get a grip on Gregor's wide-ranging writings in and about Esperanto; emboldened by this, he learnt some more Esperanto, certainly enough to hold a reasonable conversation. Finally, he was prevailed upon to address the Scottish Congress on the life and works of D. B. Gregor. This was a remarkable success; fluent, confident and convincing. Now David Lilley, like his erstwhile teacher Gregor, has more than one string to his bow, so let's hope we hear more from him.
I hope I've said enough to convince you that we Esperantists really know how to have fun; if not, there's more...
You may remember my own odyssey had got to Friday afternoon. God bless the kindly soul who gave me a lift up to the campsite on Friday night, after I had decided to forgo the sing-song that was to end the evening's entertainment. On Saturday I likewise forwent all the more strenuous activities: a visit to the Víkingar Centre, a walk in the hills above Largs, and a guided stroll around the town. All things considered, I reckoned I wasn't short of vigorous exercise just going to and from the campsite.
Bankedo is an Esperanto word that just doesn't translate well into English. Literally “banquet”; so you'd expect some kind of formal dinner, but no-one was formally dressed. A printed menu with a range of choices, and the Conservatory nicely decked out. A local dignitary and some speeches, but very short. An address by our Guest of Honour Renato Corsetti, about the present state of Esperanto around the world, but brief and informal. This was all on Saturday evening. Further entertainment was billed after this, but as the hour approached 11.00 I started the long walk up to the campsite.
I had company; some bikers had arrived and had set up 4 or 5 tents. I heard nothing from them that night, but said hello to one of them the next morning. By Sunday evening they were gone.
But Sunday is a whole 'nother story. Any decent congress, conference, seminar or gathering finds an excuse, usually towards the end, to pack everyone in coaches and send them on an outing. Boat trips are less common, but we had one. Admittedly it only took about ten minutes each way, but it isn't very far to Cumbrae; which is where the whole Congress decamped for Sunday's activities. Most people went over on the 10.00 boat, but, having overslept, I just made it for the 11.00 crossing. From the ferry slip a bus (incongruously numbered route 320) takes you to Millport, which is the only town on Cumbrae.
On catching sight of Millport I immediately thought of The Wicker Man. Sadly there were no naked young women dancing round maypoles or any other sign of pagan activity, but if you've seen the town in the film that's pretty much what Millport looks like.
It's a pretty little town, and again unlike The Wicker Man, the Church is very much in business. Millport is home to, believe it or not, an Anglican cathedral, said to be the smallest cathedral in Britain. This was the venue for the day's disports. According to the programme, a quiz had been held just before I arrived. Be that as it may, the first thing I took part in was the buffet lunch, which was very good. The weather allowed us to sit out on the grass with this; though I was a mite disappointed to see some people go in search of chairs. In fact, it was all so good that about half a dozen of us were lured away neither by the Service in the Cathedral nor the unspecified “Alternative Item” led by Bill Simcock. I'm sure both were excellent, but our group was quite happy to relax on the grass (and two chairs) talking of this and that for an hour or so.
At 2.30 there was, as they say, a choice of programming. I could have heard Duncan Thomson talk about, and presumably demonstrate, knots; but instead I went to hear David Bisset outlining the history of the Cathedral and drawing our attention to its salient features.
With scarcely a pause for breath this was followed by the Concert and the second appearance of Stephen Thompson, reciting, acting and singing. Beautiful unaccompanied singing from Karine Davison, a difficult thing to do well, and some instrumental pieces of a very high standard; all in all a memorable occasion. And this was immediately followed by Marjorie Boulton, re John Dinwoodie, already mentioned.
Then back to Largs for dinner, and John Wells on the Academy, then, for lack of time, not David's Kelso's promised Monologue; and so to bed, with thoughts of John Cleese protesting “What about my Rustic Monologue?”
We've reached Monday so I'm obviously not going to keep you much longer. The Congress closed at lunchtime, and I could just about have got home if I had left immediately; but we weren't done yet. There was still the coach trip to come.
Millport Cathedral had been put up by one of the Earls of Glasgow, and now we were off to see their ancestral and current home, Kelburn Castle, a couple of miles down the road from Largs. There's much more there than you can see in one day; it's a full-scale country park with formal gardens, things for kids, and a riding school. But we were there for a guided tour of the Castle itself. You could spend days just on the castle as everything in it seems to have its own story. Where else can you see a stuffed albatross? As our guide said, no two tours are alike, with different parts of different stories being told each time. Will I ever hear the rest of it? Probably not.
Following which we repaired to the Cafeteria (best coffee of the weekend) before returning to Largs.
At this point (about 6.00) I said my goodbyes and did some errands in Largs, then headed off up the hill. As the evening drew on I found myself beset with midges, retreated to the tent, put the radio on, and heard that the Michael Jackson verdict was imminent. It remained imminent for about two hours...
So this was my cue to get back to the real world. Bright and early next morning (about 6.00) I packed up the tent, after a fashion, and headed for the station. By late afternoon I was at home indoors.
I haven't been to huge numbers of Esperanto congresses, but this was one of the best I've seen. A vote of thanks to Jean and David Bisset for making it happen; a big thank-you to the hotel staff for all their efforts; and spare a thought for all the valiant speakers who put in so many hours of research and preparation for a talk which, at the time, must have seemed to be over almost before it started.