BOOK REVIEW: The Story of the Damascus Drum By Christopher Ryan

By Elaine Henderson

The Story of the Damascus Drum bookA road sign on the outskirts of Hawick in the Scottish Borders implores you to “Stop and Shop at the Home of Cashmere!” but most traffic is either heading further on down the A7 toward Carlisle or veering east toward Jedburgh and the A68  into Northumbria. The people who actually live in the historic home of tweed and the twinset, returning from shopping or working elsewhere, are the last people to be able to afford a £200 jumper or £30 pair of socks, unless they hear of some arbitrary factory outlet sale.

Hawick’s other claim to fame is as one of the principal exponents of the proudly patriarchal Common Ridings. The month-long summer festivities hark back to – or celebrate, depending on your point of view – the time when there were frequent Border skirmishes, culminating in defeat at the Battle of Flodden in 1514, followed a year later by a successful rout of a smaller local battle by the the remaining Hawick young men when they captured the English flag. At one end of the long High Street is a statue of a weary black horse with its flag-waving rider, and at the other a pavement group statue of an elderly couple welcoming back the victorious young flag capturer. This more contemporary piece conveys both the pity for a lost generation of men and the evident hope for the young.

Hawick has suffered from a great loss of hope in the past hundred and fifty years. Its glory days were in the mid 19thC when as a thriving mill town it produced tweed and tartan and millions of pairs of stockings on locally developed knitting frames from the thick fleeces of Cheviot sheep, the whole industry supported by fast flowing rivers and a train line between Hawick and Carlisle. When it began importing the finer cashmere wool from the Far East, it had all the necessary infrastructure to add this luxury product to its output.

But two world wars later, global competition and rationalization has all but killed off the industry; fine  buildings which in Edinburgh or London would be snapped up for renovating into trendy apartments slowly rot, and the only reminders of full employment are the strange esoteric names of the various related skills of the workers  carved into the pavement outside the Textile Towerhouse Museum, itself occupying the space of a former mill.

In the High Street, below the still impressive architecture of the original emporia, Victorian glass windows in cracked wood frames house Vaping shops and charities,and a few well-known fashion and pharmaceutical stores cling to their infrequent custom. Not one of the original four large and grand Scottish banks still function as such, being replaced by one tiny modern suite of offices owned abroad and sandwiched between Greggs and the Sally Army. Other fine buildings built in  the diverse styles which money accumulated by textile wealth allowed  – Gothic, Dutch, Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau, French Renaissance – have also  lingered unloved and taken for granted.Yet in between, the local enterprises- butchers, bakers, hardware suppliers, pet shops, hairdressing salons, fancy gifts, independent boutiques- testify to a cheerful and hard-working spirit.

And that cheerfulness is nowhere more evident than in the delightful and slightly bizarre café called The Damascus Drum. Just off the High Street, tucked into a small lane on a bridge crossing the Slitrig Water which rushes through the heart of Hawick, it exists out of sight of the beaten track. Converted from an old cobbler’s shop, Turkish coffee pots mingle with redundant remnants of the shoemaker’s craft on shelves running round the walls which are further decorated with rugs and Islamic tiles. The owner Christopher Ryan has travelled extensively in the Middle East and has instilled his obvious love of that region into this venture. You might find only one or two couples or solo diners engaged in quiet conversation or reading while eating, but there is always an air of calm; dogs lie contentedly at their owner’s feet.  You may sit at the front overlooking the cobbled lane or wander through to the back, drawn to a wall lined with a disordered eclectic selection of secondhand books. And when you take a small table there, or squash into the beaten-up sofa laden with more rugs and settle back, you look up and spot The Damascus Drum itself sitting on a high shelf!

We did just this last year, and after a delicious meal of soup, Mediterranean salad, cake and coffee we of course made enquiries about the significance of the drum. That day we came home with the paperback telling the drum’s story, written by Christopher and published by the intriguing “Hakawati Press, Hawick.”I would love to say that I read it immediately, but I didn’t. Perhaps subconsciously, I knew there would be a time and place for such reading.

So here we are. It is exactly a year to the day that we got the keys to our new home in Hawick and for the last five weeks we have been, like millions of others around the world, confined to it. Even writing that sentence has an air of unreality about it, but of course it is horribly true. Yet what an opportunity this has provided for reading, and while I turned to this tale initially as an escape from that truth it instead presented a mirror in which to face it, examine it and finally to understand it with the help of a wiser mind than one’s own.

This tale of

love and self-discovery, an adventure replete with villains and heroes, life and death, fools and sages…and a lot of goats.

weaves threads of poetry, psychology, philosophy, mysticism, dreams, nightmares… and yes, lots of randy goats– in one long spiralling, sprawling tale of interwoven characters as colourful as the rugs bought and sold in the bazaars of old Damascus.

From evident first-hand knowledge Ryan delights in making us internally sound the tongue-twisting names of its characters and locations, while charmingly drawn maps and Victorian engravings help to anchor them to our imagination.  Cities and places we now only associate with abject misery and war regain their vitality as thriving centres of trade – Hawick is mentioned as a supplier of fine cloth to the bazaars!

There are mouthwatering descriptions of the fresh produce grown in that region, of the time-consuming preparation of it and the equally long hours of pleasure in eating it.There is religious reverence and tolerance and moral certainty; divisions between the corrupt and evil and the innocent and good are understood. One is assured that the wicked will get their come-uppance, and so it transpires but in clever and unpredictable ways.

There is laugh out loud humour, moments of high farce and deep grief, romance and stark, visceral reality. The narrator is sometimes a man, sometimes a goat and sometimes a drum…and this is the final resonating heartbeat of the book: the recognition of the brevity of human existence, only made bearable in the celebration of love, because

through that rarest of qualities which we poor humans can aspire to, the humility which comes from accepting completely one’s true condition of poverty and neediness….(one must).. always remain ready to receive whatever life gives at each moment.

And later

it is the same love that moves the whole cosmos. Follow it back to its source, and become the place where love appears.

Taken out of context, these passages could seem clichéd, but in the scale of its narrative its conclusions are as convincing as the chuckling of a mountain stream,or … the tinkling a goat’s bell. A timeous tale told with such a love, wit, humour and imagination that surely connects with all our diverse experiences in this life, it is a most powerful antidote to fear, and which I was infinitely comforted to read.

Link: The Story of the Damascus Drum by Christopher Ryan from Hakawati Press,Hawick.

The Story of the Damascus Drum book

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