Thursday, 27 April 2017

Prose Gatherer

Have you ever referred to a novel as if it were a common prayer book? I can't say I have. There's not one book that appeals to me to do so, although there's plenty, though read and not re-read, that I cannot rid myself of, not for any sentimental value but because of the story, the prose, the feelings that arose in that first reading.
Words that were so thoroughly enjoyed that though edible they remain a little undigested, yet often it's not even the words themselves that sit in the cave of my stomach but the remembrance of emotion. The feeling of being swept along as if a not unpleasant gusty wind pulled me this way and that, and time, the time I was governed by, slipped away, so that the need to read pushed me ever on, heedless of the ground I walked upon. I wouldn't have realised if my feet had no path to tread, just air.
That lost feeling, as in forgetting oneself, whilst a world that's unlike your own swallows you whole cannot, I think, be divined elsewhere. That is a mark of a truly good novel, an excellent piece of writing.
The one that wields the pen, or in modern days taps the keys, is the channel through which it (the story) flows, and undoubtedly they deserve some credit, but all? Aren't they too tapping in, like you in your reading, to a source that cannot be described. Something of that time that possibly won't be repeated, or none too often. And if they do, are able to somehow keep that door open, then they are fortunate indeed.
No, the writing of some novels cannot be accounted for, even by the authors. Or is it just the looking back that cannot be explained? The urge to write gone, the story as needed to be told written out, and with it the laborious love that went into it, so that later when it's in circulation and people enquire, as people will enquire, the inspiration is harder to define, let alone rationalise to those interested.
Whenever and however such a novel comes into being it's a collaborative act between the writer and I don't know what: a ripeness, an opportune time, something with a fantastical aura about it that has sought and now found the right mind; you might even hear an audible click! when this pairing is made. And that partnership might last or it might fade, be intermittent or even disappear altogether.
The novels that satisfy us as mere readers sometimes fail to satisfy their writers, upon later reflection, because, I think, when the moment has passed a link gets severed. The gift has been given and offered. The public swoons but the writer will have moved on; the deliciousness of the prose there for others to enjoy. The experience of being read very different to being written, for nobody, I believe, can conceive how a voice in your head will be read. The tone in which it was set dependent on the eyes and ears of the reader, so that the novel, now independent of its author, has to find a home, except in this arena there are far more mismatches.
That's why it's so important to know what resonates with you and what does not; to make your own judgements: be open to criticism and yet don't just listen to what others say or tell you. Some novels (or authors) are ripe for a certain window of time, some won't feel right but will revisit you later or turn up when you least expect it. If you know enough of yourself you'll know when that window has arrived. But, initially, there has to be some effort.
And reading, or the enjoyment of it, is not meant to necessarily be easy or involving all the time. Some or most is pretty good going in my book, and if you're flying, well, savour it because the next may be a more turbulent flight of the imagination.
I think what I'm saying is that reading is like a relationship: full of ups and downs, heady days and trial and permanent separations, and not just with reading in general but with each novel, new to you or of old. And like a person-to-person relationship, your feeling towards and your taste in books will change; does this devalue the moments you will have spent engrossed in print? No, not if what you treasure foremost is the prose and secondly, the writer.

Picture credit: The Missal, 1902, John William Waterhouse

Thursday, 20 April 2017

The Steal and the Reparation

In my youth I committed a crime. An impulsive, acquisitive act that didn't hurt anyone in the vicinity at the time, nor would it when the article was missed, if it ever was, or at least that's what I thought because in the end it always does, affect someone, that is.
And here comes the excuse: I was young! And overcome by wanting an item I'd spotted and knowing I could get, right there and then, without having to save up or lay out any expense, or waste time in tracking down the very thing, for it was there, the exact copy I wanted on display. Even retrospectively, the remembrance of that moment fills me with the same keen yearning, in spite of the item being here, in front of my left elbow on the writing desk.
That first sighting was exquisite; a little thrill ran through me, raising hairs on the back of my neck and causing my skin to flush, a sensation mostly felt for I'm sure I stayed my usual shade of pale, and the next step was, of course, to get close enough to touch it, to stretch an forefinger out and lightly tap its cloth-bound, rough exterior and trace the gold embossed lettering.
This I did with a shaking hand as if it were the hand of an vengeful God about to proclaim his wrath, so that the tentative caress led to glances being exchanged between those who had also stopped by and those who stood at their customary posts, and that being so both my hands dived into the pockets of my overcoat where they opened and closed their fists around household keys and coins.
I was the only one that lingered, transfixed, yet not inattentive to the impression that floor staff wished to shoo me away and rid the entry-way of my open-mouthed, goggle-eyed admiration. I was not, I think, what they had in mind with this attempt to revive interest in forgotten authors and their lesser known and less circulated works. I outstayed the curiosity they wished to arouse, and what's more didn't attempt to browse any other novels. My green eyes fixed on the looked-for, longed-for object, just as their eyes, of varying shades and size, were fixed on me.
I'm not, you understand, usually the pilfering sort, and I might have found a way to pay a lending fee if it had been for lending, but a small neat handwritten sign stipulated that it was: For Reference Only. And even if the first had been an option, I mightn’t have returned it, the urge being greater not to, and so, my assessment then, as of now, is that it would have in the end amounted to the same crime: making something that wasn't mine, mine.
And the second, well, in my opinion that wasn't even worth my consideration. What good was merely fingering the pages, in haste to commit to mind in parcelled-out time the delicious prose, whilst observed doing so? There was no private pleasure in that, even if a less detectable corner was found, which left off-the-premises borrowing. To borrow is such a manipulable term, and much preferred to thieving.
As luck would have it, Mrs Bird, the priggish overseer of the book lending shop, got distracted, as did the other floor staff, by some animated boys outside who were taunting some poor creature, and that, I'm sorry to say, was the ripe moment in which I impulsively acted. The left hand came out from its pocket and grabbed the much desired novel, concealing it as best it could in the folds of my overcoat; the free hand drawing the fabric around me as if for warmth and in preparation for an exit. Then I sallied forth as staff and patrons alike were turned towards the windows facing the high street, and slid right instead of the usual left that would have taken me home in half the time but meant I passed by their watching eyes.
The irony is this novel, unnamed deliberately in case you're wondering, which has been in my possession for forty odd years has always felt as if it were visiting, as if at some point in its history it would leave me, and that rare moment, like the moment of its theft, came. Yesterday.
And so, I returned, a much older man with said thumbed book tucked under my coated arm, to the scene, changed as it is, to amend my youthful folly.

Picture credit: The Theft 1894 and the Restitution 1920, Max Beerbohm

Thursday, 13 April 2017


Lot's wife looked back when it was expressively said she shouldn't and now so have I, more than once. Although, I sincerely hope what happened to her doesn't at some point happen to me; after all, my psychiatrist did warn me not to. He advised me strongly to resist the urge to revisit the scene, in words or mind, but he knew I had to and would do it: finish what I had started for a following of one or many. And my friend, the acquaintance that pitched me into the unknown, did deserve the full, honest truth of my early return. Verbatim.
I already have to live with the knowledge that I unfulfilled my promise: my casual acceptance of the task as sold, since the whole travelling experience was such an eye-opener that I haven't been able to repeat or confront it, at least in body if not in mind, and so, this disclosing is as much for my friend as for myself and is by far the lesser evil, which is to state, ineffably, that in doing so that I also escaped my friend's overbearing attitude, which somehow presided over me from miles away. Perhaps if Milan hadn't happened in quite the way it did, I would have persevered.
In a sense, I have borne witness to my own destruction and not my restitution. In Paris I began to relax, until Milan, then WHACK! as if I'd been suddenly hit by a fast-bowled cricket ball and socked back into my retiring shell. No, I couldn't have stayed or continued on, but then that wasn't an option as you will in good time discover.
After an uncomfortable night, barely raised off the floor on an unrolled mattress and with the door to the cell propped open, and still I might add in my own creased clothes, I awoke to the harsh light of day, or what I took to be day, as it actually turned out to be the overhead lighting, as well as a cup of tea brought in by the duty officer. I must say they did seem very well equipped for English visitors who weren't their run-of-the-mill, but in truth, nothing by then really surprised me. I was even allowed a quick wash and a shave, before being made to read over (for the umpteen time) and sign my statement; the translator the night before having ensured it was accurate.
Unfortunately, though I was allowed to go the paraphernalia I arrived with, a holdall and a fine, sturdy walking stick, were not. Both items I learned were being held for further inspection, for what reason or to what purpose I don't rightly know, but that was the explanation I got; that and the fact I would be sent almost immediately home, which I was initially offended by as it smacked of deportation when I was a legal visitor. However, on reflection, an instant after receiving this news, I realised this plan was welcome.
I'd had enough and I'm not a person that kicks up a fuss, particularly when it's delivered with such gracious manners, and so I was relieved to follow their lead, but when I'm without the aid of my stick I quickly develop a limp and, therefore, was escorted to a car, which I thought would take me straight to the airport and on the first flight home, but no, I was given a whistle-stop tour.
We rattled through as many back-streets as we could, though in retrospect I often think this must have been an hallucination – it has the qualities of one – caused either from over-tiredness or doctored tea, but I do remember feeling rather exhilarated by the flashing scenery. And the speed we were travelling at brought back childhood memories of the funfair, like I was belted in a flying chair or a spinning teacup and screaming 'Faster!' If it was meant to scare, it didn't. But as with rides, it decelerated, and the drive that eventually wound up at the airport was a much more sedate affair.
Once there, I was met with a wheelchair, passed through the necessary pre-boarding checks which I barely have any retention of – the accompanying officer holding my papers – and steered to the appropriate departure gate. The only true memory I have of this moment prior to boarding is acquiring a Homburg which I remember accepting with a quizzical brow though I don't recall the face of the conferrer, as it's here with me now: on my head, squashing flat my receded salt-and-pepper hair.

Picture credit: The Navigli, Milan, 1965, Ferdinando Scianna

Thursday, 6 April 2017

The Spilling of Salt

It didn't bear thinking about in the immediate aftermath; it doesn't bear thinking about now. Still. But I will, for I dislike people leaving me hanging, so it would be ungenerous of me to do the same, particularly when you might have felt invested emotionally, (reading is, I find, emotion-tugging), and so, even though I'm months further on and not as you might rightly surmise in Milan I will for your sake return to that bleak evening.
The sojourn was brief, much briefer than I ever could have imagined, ending in a stuffy interview room in a police station as I made and went over and over my witness statement. Forgive me if I choose to omit bedding down in a cell, as that's not something I really want to remember, though the duty officer was kind if a little over-polite in light of my foreigner status. And the translator (a man younger than me by a good twenty years and immaculately groomed as Italians generally are) provided in case of a communication breach was if anything too eager to be helpful. He almost became my shadow. Every time I fidgeted or stifled a nervous cough, he did too, furtively looking my way as if to say we're in this fine mess together, and yet his mimicking behaviour instead of being reassuring made me ill at ease. He would jump in to translate when I was mid-response, so that I would tail off and he would take over in rapid Italian, whilst the interviewing officer would listen and nod like one of those kitsch dogs whose heads jerk up and down.
So there I was in a disconcerting environment with the feeling my evidence differed to the other witnesses who'd been present and like me held for questioning. They weren't too many that hadn't in some way become involved in the fracas, so mine was an unusual case. I had felt as if I was watching Jeremy Kyle or Jerry Springer and I was the host complacently sitting a whisker away and letting the mayhem unfold.
The scuffle was laughable, really, like a food fight in a public school dinner hall: slices of Ciabatta were flung; oil and balsamic vinegar was flicked into eyes from the dipping bowls; antipasto was smeared into faces; and servers were pelted by olive stones if they tried to intervene. The mood, however, suddenly changed, and the venomous undertone that been there from the beginning under the surface rose, though I can't say if I realised this switch had been thrown at the time of my viewing. It all happened so quickly...
Food became fists flying through the air and landing on someone's cheek or torso; raised argumentative voices became loud grunts as more physical energy was expended; and there was the ripping of clothes as it became advantageous to throttle or wrestle your opponent to the restaurant floor, and once there roll around in a squabbling bear hug. At some point during this, another smaller fraction had broken off and upped the ante, resorting to not fists but forks, and pricking their adversary's skin as if they were sausages; a few even went for the eyeballs as if they were attempting to spear a pickled onion, though I don't think there's much call for those in Milan.
And so you see, it was rather comical to me, as if it were staged like a WWE tag team event and agreed who the eventual winners and losers were going to be, and so I took the injuries to be superficial. Most of them were you know, just scratches and bruises and the like, but some I learned later were more serious: broken ribs, a ruptured spleen and a punctured lung. From my seated vantage, however, it was horseplay: the sort of play men engage in to let off steam, which I've seen break out many a time and then it's all over. The men shake hands and return to nursing their drinks, along with their pumped or smashed egos, or whatever.
How was I to know this was different?
The officer questioning me found it hard to believe I didn't see, as did the over-helpful translator, the trifle that sparked the fight. I definitely don't recall noticing it at the time or later, and even if I had, it would still have been a trifle not worth mentioning. Salt cellars don't hold much significance to me other than to season food and I don't as a rule at the table, but there, the spilling of salt meant betrayal, which led to the first missile of food.

Picture credit: Cafe, Lombardia region (town of Milan), Italy, 1966, Bruno Barbey (Magnum Photos)